UK City of Culture 2021: Midlands cities' beauty contest

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Image caption Coventry is one of three Midlands cities bidding to be named UK City of Culture, 2021

Cue the drum roll. This year's hopefuls lining up include no fewer than three Midlands cities: Coventry, Hereford, and Stoke-on-Trent. To the winner will go the honour of being named UK City of Culture, 2021. They have until next March to get their bids in. The result will be unveiled in the city awarded the accolade for 2017, Kingston-upon-Hull, which is now anticipating extra inward investment worth up to £80m.

But is there not something vaguely anachronistic about beauty contests these days, especially in this age of austerity? How can hard-pressed cities with serious challenges and heavy, competing demands on the public and private purse justify the costs of mounting bids when there are so many competitors, let alone the £10m or more it would take to stage the event if they succeed?

Council leaders in Stoke say the inward investment to the city would outweigh the outlay up to six fold. They point to the transformational effects for the previous winner Derry/Londonderry. A pottery factory, a local theatre and, inevitably, an oatcake shop are already preparing to set out their respective stalls.

Show us the Monet

Image caption Andrew Dixon has more than 30 years experience with more than 80 local authorities "promoting places through culture"

Mounting successful bids has clearly become an art in itself.

Andrew Dixon has over 30 years experience with more than 80 local authorities "promoting places through culture". He led the team behind Hull's successful campaign for 2017. Now he has been signed up for one of Stoke's biggest rivals, Coventry. He tells me the city has been "under-valued and under-rated" for too long. Having spent many years "moving people through cycles and cars it is now moving people through culture".

But how much of this really is about culture and how much is it politics? After the recent successes of Derry and Hull, is there a tacit assumption that the 2021 prize will go to somewhere in either Scotland or Wales, whatever the merits or demerits of our English cities?

Gambits or gambles?

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Image caption Even though Andrew Dixon is batting for Lady Godiva's city, he still has some words of encouragement for smaller cities like Hereford (pictured) who may fear being outgunned

I remember the anguished reactions among the Birmingham campaign team after their unsuccessful bid for European Capital of Culture. Having majored on everything from the diversity of its community arts movement to the city's world-renowned orchestra and ballet company, they were distinctly underwhelmed to be told by a senior cabinet minister at the time that Liverpool had triumphed "because Birmingham does not need this".

A question, perhaps of regeneration gambits rather than genuine cultural credentials? Or is the whole thing something of a lottery, a gamble?

Even though Andrew Dixon is batting for Lady Godiva's city, he still has some words of encouragement for smaller cities like Hereford who may fear being outgunned by the bigger Coventrys and Stokes. He points out that Derry was also at the smaller end of the scale and yet it had a huge year in 2013. So his advice to our ancient cathedral city: "Celebrate what you have achieved and find artists who can tell your story. Make your bid authentic and honest about your place."

This will be our main talking point on this weekend's Sunday Politics Midlands. Join us at 11.00 GMT on BBC One this Sunday, 24 January 2016.