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Wells Bid for UK City of Culture

Volume 624: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2017

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Wells’s bid for UK City of Culture.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am honoured to have secured a debate today—the penultimate day of this Parliament—to raise Wells’s bid to become UK city of culture in 2021. As a proud constituency MP, I have supported the bid since its genesis, which was not long ago. I will continue to support it because it has enormous potential to change the stars of both Wells and the wider Somerset area. Before I get going, it is important to place on the record that, in the absence of a large civic construct to put together this bid, it has fallen to volunteers in and around Wells to do so. One of those volunteers, Andy Webb, deserves particular note. The amount he has achieved in such a short time is phenomenal.

Before I talk specifically about Wells’s bid, I want to say a few words in my capacity as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the UK events industry, not least because I see that Nick de Bois hopes to return to Parliament and may well be restored to the chairmanship of the APPG when he gets here. It has been an absolute pleasure to chair that APPG for the past two years. I have learned an enormous amount about the ingenuity of the UK events industry and its role in driving our visitor economy and showcasing British business through the calibre and expertise of the events that we put on around the world. I have also seen the value of local, regional and national events, including the city of culture, which is a series of events over the course of a year or so. In Londonderry, city of culture status was worth £100 million to the local economy, and in Hull it has already been worth £60 million. Hon. Members can therefore perhaps see why Wells and the wider Somerset area are so keen on securing city of culture status. It would be transformative.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate about an issue that is tremendously important for his constituency and surrounding constituencies. He mentioned that, unlike larger civic constructs—that is the phrase he used—the bid is being put together by a small, dedicated band of volunteers. I am sure that he has therefore already spoken to Visit Somerset, which used to be called Somerset Tourism. I hope it has engaged strongly in creating Wells’s bid, if only because the knock-on effect for the local accommodation industry close to my home in Weston-super-Mare may be profound. I hope Visit Somerset is providing the support my hon. Friend hopes for.

I very much agree. This is a huge opportunity, not just for Wells but for Western-super-Mare. Visit Somerset has been involved, along with several other local bodies, in supporting the volunteers in putting together the bid. However, we need to discuss the differences in Wells’s bid so that the Minister might satisfy himself that the bid process lends itself as keenly to rural areas as to urban areas. Wells’s bid is not about post-industrial regeneration, which was the centrepiece of the bids by Londonderry and Hull. There is a very different opportunity down in Somerset, which I will talk about later.

Our bid draws on a rich cultural heritage that is way out of proportion with the size of our city. We are England’s smallest city, but our cathedral has a centuries-long tradition in music, as has the now ruined Glastonbury abbey, which still hosts wonderful musical events during the year. We have the Glastonbury festival just down the road. There is Arthurian legend all over, with Avalon and Glastonbury itself, which will be a wonderful theme to draw on throughout the city of culture year. There are now internationally significant art galleries in Bruton. There is an opera festival in Wedmore, there are comedy festivals in Wells, and there are literature, food and film festivals. We have Cedars Hall, a brand new world-class concert hall. We are the location for many movies and TV programmes, and so much more. That all goes alongside a rural, agricultural life and an incredible natural history, but we are also embracing our emerging digital arts industry as we tap into the success of those sectors in Bristol and Bath.

The cultural offer is perhaps more developed and diverse in Wells, the smallest of the bid cities, than in other large cities, but let us be clear: we are much less well funded. The bid document quite understandably requires certain commitments about a bid’s underpinning. Does the Minister believe that that is fair, given that we are trying to build a country that works for everyone? We must recognise that that includes developing the economies of rural areas as well as urban areas. I wonder whether, in the few days he has left—I accept that his civil servants are almost locked down in purdah—he will satisfy himself that, when smaller local authority areas bid for such things, the process perhaps needs to be weighted to recognise that they are unable to underwrite bids in the same way as larger metropolitan areas. Are there other ways of doing it?

The great advantage of volunteers coming together as they have in Wells is that there is private sector engagement, which is encouraging. The Heritage Lottery Fund has been forthcoming in explaining what involvement it may have. If we are aiming to create a country that works for everyone, I hope the Minister will look carefully at the process to ensure that all regions can compete equitably, and that the bid process does not disadvantage rural areas and those where local authorities are unable to resource bids more fully.

I applaud my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to the Chamber. One of the big drivers behind cities of culture is improving economic prosperity. As my hon. Friend says, Wells, with its cathedral, is a glorious location. It was the location for the film “Hot Fuzz”. My dad went to school there, at the Blue School. It is important to recognise that Wells sits in a poor rural environment. The effect of Wells securing city of culture status might reverberate out into the surrounding rural areas, including to my constituency of Taunton Deane and the rest of Somerset, and improve our productivity, which we so badly need to address. As Conservatives, we are addressing it, but we need to do more.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. If someone flew over our constituencies, they would see so many trees and fields that they would think all was well down below. It is so easy to assume that, but there is a hidden deprivation in rural areas that is just as significant a challenge as the challenge in inner-city areas. In fact, dealing with that deprivation is arguably a much greater challenge. Too often in rural areas, rather than deprivation being concentrated in one area and the aim of intervention therefore being clearly defined, families who live in deprivation are on their own. There might be only one family in a hamlet who live in such circumstances, or deprived families might be scattered across a town or a large village, making it much more challenging to intervene in their lives. There is an opportunity for city of culture status to uplift the entire area, so that we can find and engage deprived people who live in isolation—we can do something that could be transformative to their lives.

The Minister will be well aware of several obvious benefits of city of culture status that are common to all bid cities. The most obvious place to start is the visitor economy. Somerset’s visitor economy is already growing—it has grown from £1.2 billion to £1.3 billion in just the last few years. Visit Somerset has been on the front foot in looking at all sorts of ways of marketing our county, with huge success, as have the various tourism expos that have come to the county, several of which I have had the pleasure of hosting. I suspect that the Minister will want to pass back congratulations to Visit Britain, which has brought several international delegations of tour operators to Somerset. I hosted a group of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Mexican tour operators in Glastonbury just a month or two ago. It was great that Visit Britain brought them to the area to see what we have to offer.

Despite that, the reality is that Somerset is still too often the drive-through county on the way to the far south-west—that is music to your ears, Mr Streeter, but Somerset has so much more to offer and I am sure you will not begrudge us if we hold up visitors a little longer at our end of the peninsula. So much more could be done in the visitor economy in our part of the south-west, and it would be great to see the city of culture status acting as a catalyst for a growth in visitor numbers. It would also be fantastic to see the city of culture status acting as a catalyst for infrastructure improvement—the railway lines south of Bristol are not planned for electrification, while the line from Reading to Taunton and down to the far south-west is perhaps not being electrified as quickly as we might have hoped. Perhaps a major, internationally significant tourism event, such as city of culture events or something along those lines, might be a reason to accelerate the improvement of those lines.

City of culture status might be a great hook for a number of airlines that have been looking at bringing in daily services from Bristol airport to New York, Doha and Istanbul. Perhaps city of culture status might be the final encouragement they need to commit to those services, which would be great not just for Bristol and the greater Bristol area, but for the whole south-west peninsula. City of culture status could be a catalyst for that, and for road improvements. My hon. Friends the Members for Bath (Ben Howlett) and for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) have been doing some great work on improving the route from the M4 down through Bath and into Somerset and west Wiltshire—it would be great to see that succeed. I have been working on getting some improvements to the A39 and the A361 for cars coming in from the M5 at Bridgwater north, in order for them to access Mendip more quickly. What a great thing it would be if city of culture status was to be the catalyst for those road improvements.

The Minister has been doing great work on broadband and mobile phone coverage—they have improved enormously in our part of the world in recent years. Given that there might be some growth in the emerging digital arts industry in the Somerset area, city of culture status might also catalyse that need for digital connectivity and see us accelerate.

I wonder if my hon. Friend will give me the pleasure of intervening again, as I am the only other Back Bencher here?

I feel I am speaking up for the rest of Somerset, and perhaps the Minister might listen to this. Productivity in the south-west has historically been below that of the rest of the country—we are at about 7% and the rest of the country is at about 8%. Does my hon. Friend see city of culture status as a great opportunity to address that? The knock-on effect could be enormous. If we had a city of culture in the south-west—that would be unusual because the money is all going north—it could do so much good and have a big impact on productivity.

My hon. Friend is an excellent battle buddy to have in today’s pursuit of the Minister. She is entirely right that productivity is potentially one of the big gains, and I will come to it shortly.

City of culture status might help to achieve other things. We are blessed in Somerset with some outstanding schools and colleges, but too often we are training people up and giving them an education with which they think they have no option but to move away to pursue their careers. City of culture status might attract inward investment and create a buzz about living in Somerset. It might come about alongside the introduction of a university of Somerset in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and alongside excellent work on the arts—Strode College in my constituency delivers skills in digital arts and marketing and so on. In some small way, city of culture status might help to rebalance Somerset’s demographics by keeping young people in the county.

If we manage to improve the infrastructure and create a younger workforce with the right skills that are needed by the industries that are there and that are emerging, we will achieve a significant productivity boost, as my hon. Friend suggested. That would be a fantastic legacy for Somerset, not only because it would change Somerset’s stars in terms of the population’s skills and the availability of the workforce, but because the availability of the newly skilled workforce would bring with it inward investment, which would bring new companies. That would be hugely exciting. Perhaps we could see city of culture status as part of the legacy of Hinkley Point, which is already doing something to rebalance our region’s economy.

What if, having brought all of that expertise and know-how to the county, and with follow-on industries coming behind, there was city of culture status helping to reinforce what a wonderful quality of life one can have when living in Somerset? It all seems to work and the timing is right. I hope the Minister agrees that he has a significant opportunity to do something not just for the city of Wells but for the south-west region as a whole.

My hon. Friend is giving a catalogue of reasons that make Somerset glow and sound such an attractive place, which it is. We also have the massive wildlife offer in the Somerset levels, which is very close to Wells and which we could build on. Taunton in my constituency is the county town of Somerset, but it could build its links with Wells. We are trying to build our cultural offer. Similarly, we have the international Somerset County Ground. We could build the whole offer in Somerset, focused in Wells, but with spin-offs.

My hon. Friend is contributing powerfully on behalf of our county and her constituency. She is entirely right. England’s smallest city cannot do this alone. This offer encompasses Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet, Frome, Cheddar, Wedmore, Street and villages all over the county, but also places slightly further afield such as Taunton, Bath and Bristol. This is a hugely exciting regional opportunity.

The Minister might say: “So what? Every bid says city of culture status will bring more tourism, boost productivity and bring inward investment.” He is not wrong. However, that is where a bid from a small city in a rural setting becomes interesting. The challenge of yesteryear was the regeneration of post-industrial cities. The new challenge for the next decade is how we build more resilient communities that can deal with loneliness, an ageing population and the challenges of mental health, and particularly dementia among that ageing population.

Somerset has those problems acutely and is in the nation’s vanguard when it comes to the ageing population. City of culture status could be seen as an opportunity for the arts to bring communities together and enhance the culture of volunteerism, which already exists in our communities but which could become so much more, and therefore to build networks of people who are looking out for one another. It would be hugely exciting if the arts and city of culture status brings them together in the first place.

I hope the Minister will reflect that there is an economic challenge in the south-west. Although there are not the brownfield sites seen previously in other bid cities, he might reflect that the south-west has lagged behind in inward investment for some time, and that a flagship project of international significance could really drive the local economy. It would be exciting, and therefore ticks all of the boxes of a more conventional bid.

I hope the Minister also sees that one of the Government’s great challenges over the next decade will be tackling loneliness and helping the elderly to live independently in their own homes, so that they do not need adult social care and do not need to be in hospital. City of culture status could be a catalyst for developing that resilience, building that network of volunteers and embracing the huge horsepower that exists within community and voluntary groups. If a celebration of our community, culture and shared history can be used to create a legacy of support and of looking out for one another in a resilient community, that is hugely exciting.

Mr Streeter, you have indulged me and my colleagues from Somerset for long enough. It has been a huge honour to pitch to you and the Minister the value of a bid for Wells to become the UK city of culture. I know the Minister does not make the decision, but I hope that we might be successful in reaching the shortlist in due course, and that he will go away full of enthusiasm for what we have to offer.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in what I expect to be the final Westminster Hall debate that I will respond to in this Parliament. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) on securing this debate and on so powerfully arguing for Wells to become the UK city of culture in 2021. We can see why the people of Wells elected him. He has a deep passion for his city, and he touched on some of the things he has been able to do in the two years he has been an MP to improve the city and life for its residents. I wish him well in his bid to gain their trust to do that in the next Parliament. We can see today why such a passionate advocate is needed for the city of Wells and the surrounding areas. He made the broader case, including for the value of Wells becoming the city of culture to Somerset and the south-west more widely.

Under the UK’s city of culture programme, places can compete to hold the title once every four years, and the prize is that title. There is no formal funding support, although there is a huge amount of support to draw in funding from all sorts of places, private and public. The programme uses creativity and culture to transform a place, attracting visitors and bringing communities together. The competition was launched in January, and 11 places have registered their intention to bid: Sunderland, Perth, Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Coventry, Swansea, Hereford, Warrington, St David’s, Portsmouth and Wells. The bids need to be received by the end of this week, so this is a very timely debate. They will then be assessed by the independent advisory panel, while Parliament is dissolved. A shortlist will be announced after the election and the winning city announced by the end of this year.

I thought it was striking how my hon. Friend described the way that a largely voluntary bid is coming together, drawing people from the community and the private sector—within the council area, of course, but led by volunteers. I pay tribute to those who have worked on the bid so far. As the smallest city, Wells has an iconic selling point.

We have heard today about the cultural assets that already exist in Wells. The city of culture is all about boosting the assets that already exist, as well as adding new ones. In Wells in particular, those draw from an ancient tradition and a long and illustrious history. There is the cathedral and the bishopric, which has been in place since 909. The seat has been the Bishop of Bath and Wells since 1245. The current bishop is Peter Hancock—no relation, but a great man. There is a great heritage, with 341 different listings, four of which are for the Bishop’s Palace alone. My hon. Friend also mentioned Glastonbury festival and Cheddar, the home of cheese. The variety and depth of the history is a real attribute.

The area has enjoyed significant investment from both Arts Council England, which has invested almost £700,000 in 48 projects since 2010, and the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has invested almost £3.5 million over the same period. The theatre and circus area of Glastonbury festival are benefiting from grants this year. Last year, the Palace Trust was awarded money for its “Dragon’s Lair” project to help children and families engage with the Bishop’s Palace. There has been significant public investment, as well as the private investment that my hon. Friend talked about.

I want to touch on a couple of things that my hon. Friend said. The backing of the steering team’s vision by Visit Somerset and the support of local councils, institutions, businesses, events, artists, festivals and carnivals working together are important. There is a strong sense of pride in the area. Wells has been a candidate city for a couple of months now, and I know from some of the officials who have visited that that coming together is an important part of delivering the project.

The thing that struck me most was what my hon. Friend said about looking at the city of culture competition in a different way, not only to support primarily physical and economic regeneration but to support and strengthen the resilience and value of communities in a small city and rural setting. He put that very well. He is right that Wells would be a different choice from previous winners, where the focus has been on the economic regeneration and social rejuvenation of an area that has had a difficult time over recent generations. Wells is about building on success and building stronger and more resilient communities. He put that well, and I have noted that and will ensure it is noted by the judging panel too.

The evidence is that the value of the UK city of culture competition comes to all bidders; just bidding brings value. It brings people together and it brings national attention, as this debate is doing. Preparing the bid can generate new ideas and create new partnerships. Bidding areas often think about the plans and development over time. Hull was successful only on the second attempt, but it has been hugely successful this year. Indeed, Rough Guides said that Hull was one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit this year. Hull expects a £60 million boost to its local economy and more than £1 billion of investment. That is the benefit of winning, but it is the taking part that counts also, because people pulling together with the goal of winning has its value.

I want to acknowledge the support that my hon. Friend has from my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who put powerfully the case for the wider benefits to Somerset, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who made powerful supportive comments. Their contributions showed the value expected to the wider community, not just Wells. The bid is really about Wells in Somerset.

To pick up the Minister’s point about the rural connection, this is a massive selling point for the Wells bid. We are finding that the urban-rural divide is getting larger. If we could do something to link the two better, perhaps through the arts, that would be a really positive move.

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for her constituency and makes the case incredibly well for the importance of closing the urban-rural divide and ensuring that people in Taunton and right across rural and urban areas of the country benefit from the arts, culture and technology. I have very much taken that on board.

I will end by saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Wells is a brilliant local representative and a terrific advocate for Wells. I give him and the bidders all encouragement in this bid. There is only one thing I cannot give him, and that is that which he seeks—victory today in his bid, along with many others, to make Wells the UK city of culture in 2021. However, thanks to his efforts, the bid that they are making has been brought to the attention of people at the most senior levels, so it will get the very best shot that it can.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).