West Yorkshire has the opportunity to accelerate its recovery through culture: candidates standing to be West Yorkshire’s first Mayor should seize the opportunity, writes our Director of External Relations Abigail Scott Paul.
Good things come to those who wait. It seems a long journey since Leeds set out its ambition to become a European Capital of Culture. Like a Champions League final, the bookies’ favourite team looked poised to score the winning goal, when a cruel twist of fate got in the way. The match was ruled null and void after the EU declared that UK cities were no longer eligible to bid following the country’s historic Brexit referendum. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory and the hopes of so many in the city were dashed.
But the story doesn’t end there. With cross-party support and the backing of more than 20 local businesses and a public poll in the Yorkshire Evening Post, the city collectively said: ‘Let’s do it anyway!’ Fast forward to today, and despite all the challenges of a global pandemic, Leeds stands on the brink of unleashing its greatest cultural celebration in a generation that will not only reposition the city as a cultural giant in the world, but will also help supercharge the city’s economic and social recovery from COVID-19.
But Leeds is not the only team on the table. Looking across to our neighbours in Kirklees, Calderdale, Bradford, and Wakefield, culture is taking centre stage in efforts to bring communities together, improve mental health and wellbeing, develop skills, boost tourism and create job opportunities.
Kirklees will join in with Leeds’ celebrations in 2023 by hosting its own year of music celebrating its rich heritage. Calderdale, with its strong links to literature and the ever-impressive Piece Hall, has just announced plans to hold a year of culture in 2024 as part of the borough’s 50th birthday celebrations. Bradford is currently bidding to be UK City of Culture in 2025 and whatever the outcome of the competition, the council has already committed to a new 10-year cultural strategy, with the bid process part of a long-term vision for the district. And over in Wakefield, a city with an international reputation for sculpture, the redevelopments of the city’s former Market Hall into a creative business hub and Bretton Hall into an hotel and creative campus from heritage-led Yorkshire business Rushbond PLC, in partnership with Artfarm, are exciting.
The alignment is no accident: history reminds us that this commitment to culture is a sound investment. Evaluations of other years of culture, such as Liverpool 2008, show that host cities and their wider regions benefit from such initiatives through a growth in the visitor economy, improved perceptions, greater access to funding opportunities and job creation.
In independent research due to be published next month, Leeds 2023 can be expected to provide a return on investment of 8 to 1 across West Yorkshire in terms of its impacts on tourism, and on the culture and creative industries. The opportunity to harness culture to accelerate West Yorkshire’s recovery by leveraging the region’s skills and strengths in the creative industries and in tourism should be seized by candidates standing to be West Yorkshire Mayor.
If there is one thing that we have all learnt in this last year, it is the lesson of working collectively and supporting each other. And while regional rivalries sometimes get in the way of progress, we cannot ignore the collective opportunity we have in West Yorkshire to combine our cultural might and work together to deliver a truly creative recovery as we emerge from this pandemic. We are greater than the sum of our parts. And if the ‘roaring twenties’ do emerge from the ashes of this challenging period, then West Yorkshire is ideally poised to deliver a celebration like no other and a long-lasting transformation that will benefit people for years to come.
To find an edited version of this, posted on the Yorkshire Post on 20 April 2021, please click here.