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Coventry City of Culture

Volume 628: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2017

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of Coventry’s bid to be the 2021 City of Culture.

Thank you, Sir David. I am sure that you will chair the debate in your usual fair-minded manner. We have known each other a long time, but I would not expect any favouritism from you. It is a great honour and privilege to be here today to talk about the wonderful city of Coventry and its bid to be the city of culture for 2021. Coventry is often overlooked in favour of larger neighbours such as Birmingham, but that does not mean that Coventry is any less great. It is a welcoming city, with rich traditions and fantastic people. It is a city with a long history of culture and innovation. It was once celebrated for its mystery plays, which attracted travellers from far and wide. Some historians even believe that one such visitor was William Shakespeare. Coventry also has a proud history of fighting injustice. The legend goes that Lady Godiva rode through the city on horseback naked to protest against the high taxes levied on city folk.

Moving forward in history, we see that Coventry has always been an industrial city with an important place in the British economy. As far back as the 14th century, Coventry was an important centre for the cloth and linen trade. Since then, Coventry has developed into a thriving city for manufacturing—first for the manufacture of bicycles and, more recently, as the centre of the country’s motor car industry, with world leader Jaguar Land Rover based in the city. It continues to be at the forefront of industry, with the London Taxi Company beginning to develop and manufacture electric taxis in its Coventry factories.

Coventry has also been, and continues to be, a strong trade union city, with the development of the labour and trade union movement and the shop stewards movement. The likes of Thomas Mann and Jack Jones were heavily involved in organising a union presence in the city.

During the second world war, Coventry was one of the hardest hit cities in the country. In just one night in November 1940, 568 people were killed, 4,330 homes were destroyed and thousands more were damaged. Seventy-five per cent of Coventry’s factories were damaged, and the city’s cathedral, built in the late 14th century, was also badly damaged in the bombings. Today, the old cathedral stands as an important reminder of the fortitude and resilience of the great city and people of Coventry. It is also a monument to reconciliation and international development.

During the war, Coventry became the first city in the world to twin with another, offering the hand of friendship to the people of Stalingrad, who had faced similar hardships, only on a larger scale. After the war, it was twinned with the city of Dresden in a further symbol of international reconciliation and peace. That tradition continues today, with Coventry enjoying the friendship of 26 cities around the world.

That heritage is proudly remembered and continues to inform the city’s character. It has shaped Coventry into a city that should be celebrated. Coventry is not just an industrial city but a city of academic excellence.

The hon. Gentleman is making a brilliant case, which I support, for Coventry being the city of culture. Does he agree that the bid gives an opportunity to not just Coventry but the wider local area to show what it is all about, including places such as Bedworth and Keresley in my constituency?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and cannot disagree. It is a great opportunity not only for Coventry but for the west midlands in particular and, in a way, for Warwickshire, which is part of the west midlands to an extent.

Coventry has two world-class universities in the form of Coventry University and the University of Warwick. Those universities attract students from all over the country, as well as from across the rest of the world.

As with the mystery plays in the middle ages, culture continues to be an important part of the city’s life. The city pioneered theatre in education and it is now a vibrant centre for theatre and performing arts. It was the birthplace of 2 Tone music, a hybrid music that reflected the city’s diversity. Today, Coventry boasts the Godiva festival, the largest free festival in Europe.

The regeneration of areas such as Far Gosford Street and the Friargate project have attracted people from all over the country. There is also a proud sporting tradition in the city—I am not referring to the football club at the moment—with several sports teams maintaining strong and passionate fan bases. It is a city fiercely proud of its achievements, and rightly so.

People who come to Coventry are constantly surprised by the city and all that it has to offer. It is a vibrant, bustling city, surrounded by a beautiful protected green belt. The people of Coventry are proud and passionate about their city, and rightly so. It is a city that deserves recognition. I can think of no better way of celebrating Coventry than by making it our next city of culture, and I strongly urge Members to back its bid.

I very much recognise what the hon. Gentleman says. He may have concluded his remarks, but I want to congratulate him on bringing forward this important debate to put Coventry’s bid for city of culture on the map. From his remarks I have learnt a great deal about the city closest to where I live. Does he agree that the award would add to the resurgence of the city that we have seen in recent years, and particularly the welcome resurgence of manufacturing? With this bid, we will ensure that more and more people get to see the great virtues of the city of Coventry.

I certainly agree. We are virtually next-door neighbours, and anything that benefits Coventry also benefits Rugby and the rest of the west midlands, as I indicated earlier. With that, I urge Members to back the bid.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate. It is exciting for all of us to know that Coventry has made the shortlist and is now in a five-way race to win this title. I declare my interest in that part of my constituency is covered by the diocese of Coventry, so I have many reasons to visit the city on a regular basis.

As the hon. Gentleman said, it is the indomitable character of the city, which rebuilt itself after terrible destruction in the second world war, that means it is a very strong contender for the designation of city of culture. As he said, the city has not just one but two outstanding universities in Warwick and Coventry, which are very much at the cutting edge of pushing the frontiers of science and technology in some of the industrial sectors in which our country leads globally. Most notably, the pursuit of driverless cars is building on the city’s great traditions in the motor industry for our country.

In my role as Second Church Estates Commissioner, I have witnessed the excellent work that Coventry cathedral undertakes. It is one of the world’s oldest religious centres. The terrible destruction of the cathedral in 1940 was a turning point in its history. Provost Howard stood in the ruins, which can be seen today, and made a Christmas day broadcast in which he pledged to make reconciliation for peace the focus of the cathedral’s work. He spoke in that broadcast about building a kinder, more Christ-like world. There could hardly be a more poignant moment to argue the case for designating as city of culture one that has such a focus on the work of reconciliation and peace. We live at the moment in such a troubled, unstable world, and Coventry has a particular mission. As the hon. Member for Coventry South mentioned, it has 200 active partners around the world, in more than 40 countries, which are committed to sharing that ministry of reconciliation.

The cathedral church itself also offers great support to the bid for the accolade of city of culture. I mean not only the ruins that remain following the second world war but the new cathedral, which is an iconic building in its own right and which hosts many cultural events, not least the concerts of our own Parliament choir. I sing with the choir, and every other year we join with St Michael’s singers from the cathedral to give a big concert. A great highlight that I will never forget was singing Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”, with Sir Thomas Allen. The cathedral, at the heart of the city, offers some of the best examples of what our country has to offer culturally. However, it is also used for other events that have nothing to do with music. I took part in a national conference about the threats that the environment faces, entitled “Reconciling a Wounded Planet”, which drew people from all over the country to come and talk about what we can do about the deleterious effects of climate change.

Coventry is a city at the heart of the country, and incredibly well connected. It is easy to get to, and it is focused on human connectedness. I think that that makes it an incredibly strong contender to be made the city of culture.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), on securing this timely debate. As other right hon. and hon. Members, irrespective of political hue, would agree, Coventry is a great city, for many reasons. However, I shall briefly focus on its history, its industrial heritage and its multiculturalism.

Coventry grew to become one of the most important and strategically significant medieval cities in the UK. Today we have countless culturally significant medieval buildings and ruins dotted throughout the city. We are an historic symbol of the terror and devastation that war can cause, but also of the importance of reconciliation and peace. Equally, Coventry has made significant industrial contributions to cultural advancement. We were the birthplace of the modern bicycle and the motor car, and we continue to be a leading light in automotive engineering, thanks to the role played by Jaguar Land Rover, the London Taxi Company, the University of Warwick and Coventry University. Finally, Coventry’s cultural identity is strengthened and enhanced by our city’s multiculturalism. We have some of the most diverse and integrated communities in the UK, and I am proud to represent the most diverse area of the city.

Coventry has some great cultural assets, but it is also an understated city that has struggled to make the most of the historical and cultural resources at its disposal. That is why I am pleased that it has put itself forward to be the UK city of culture in 2021. I believe, of course, that we deserve to win. Winning the title would give the city a once in a lifetime opportunity to make sense of its cultural resources and use them to tell its story to the rest of the nation and the world, using the energy, excitement and hope that that would provide, to create a lasting economic and social legacy for current and future generations.

May I say for the first time from the Front Bench what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David? I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this important debate about Coventry’s bid to become UK city of culture in 2021, and all those right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed—particularly the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher), but also my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey).

The hon. Member for Coventry South is a passionate advocate of the city, and this is clearly an exciting time for Coventry and the four other towns and cities shortlisted to be the next holders of the transformative and prestigious title in question. The UK city of culture programme is one of our nation’s crown jewels. The winning area must build a high-quality arts and cultural programme that reaches a wide variety of audiences and participants. The title of city of culture acts as a catalyst that can regenerate and transform a place, enabling it to attract external visitors and investment while engaging and inspiring local communities and institutions, including universities, schools, health trusts and businesses. I note the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire about its value in the wider area.

In the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who was a member of Coventry City Council, I would point out that Coventry lost out under the structure of Advantage West Midlands. The Minister has spoken about investment; does he agree that the absolute commitment of the new Mayor of the West Midlands to back the bid, and for the region to get behind Coventry’s case, should help us to win?

My right hon. Friend’s point is, as always, well made, and she is right. It is useful to have the widest possible base of support across the whole region.

This year, 11 places made an application to become the UK city of culture in 2021 and, following a recommendation from the independent panel chaired by the excellent Phil Redmond, I recently agreed a shortlist of five. It was not an easy decision, as all the bids had real merit. However, I am delighted that the shortlist contains cities representing England, Scotland and Wales, each of which makes a strong case. I have been impressed by the full engagement of all the places making bids. It is even more gratifying to see that making a bid has become a valuable process in itself. It has proved transformational in raising a city’s profile and developing a clear set of cultural aspirations for the future. Feedback from the places that did not make the shortlist—Hereford, Perth, Portsmouth, St Davids, Warrington and Wells—confirms that.

Now, along with Coventry, the other shortlisted places—Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland and Swansea—are embarking on the final stages of the process. I shall announce the winner by the end of this year. There is clearly much to be gained by the winning city. Taking part in the arts can improve self-esteem and confidence. It makes people feel good about where they live and about themselves, raising aspiration and bringing communities together. The arts and culture, through their ability to engage, inspire and challenge us, are instrumental in helping to break down barriers to participation and engagement across race, disability, age, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic disadvantage. The economic and social importance of culture to place making has never been more understood and acknowledged. That is underlined by the culture White Paper and is evident in emerging data and evidence coming from Hull—the incumbent UK city of culture.

Before I address Coventry’s bid, it may be helpful to set the potential benefits that the city of culture title brings against what has happened in Hull this year. As recently as 2013, The Economist, which really should know better, suggested that declining northern cities should be abandoned. However, only three years later and still not even into its official year as city of culture, Hull became the only UK city to make Rough Guides’ top 10 cities in the world to visit, alongside Vancouver, Reykjavik and Amsterdam. That seemingly remarkable transformation is now backed up by the data emerging from the evaluation of the first three months of this year, including hotel occupancy being up almost 14%, a 17% increase in rail passengers and 37% of local businesses reporting an increase in turnover.

Of course, it is not only about economic regeneration. It is extremely heartening to learn that, in the first three months of 2017, nine out of 10 people living in Hull took part in a cultural activity, and that Hull 2017’s volunteers had already undertaken more than 100,000 volunteer hours. Those are amazing achievements for which Hull City Council and the Hull UK City of Culture 2017 company can be hugely proud.

On Coventry’s bid to become UK city of culture 2021, I acknowledge that the city has much to be proud of. Its contribution to UK culture is already impressive, from Lady Godiva to The Specials and 2 Tone, and it is also home to some of our most important medieval and post-war architecture. Throughout the bidding process, it has sought to highlight its cultural diversity and its rich heritage. Coventry hopes to use the power of culture to cross boundaries, create understanding, nurture respect and embrace humanity. As a city of invention and reinvention—as we have heard from various colleagues —it wants to create a digitally connected and international place, to reimagine the place of culture in a diverse, modern Britain.

I am sorry for intervening so late in the debate, Sir David, but I knew I could count on your indulgence, for which I am very grateful, and, indeed, on the Minister’s. I will say a few words along the lines of exactly what the Minister was saying about Coventry. It is all of the things he said, but it is also a city of youth—that is our appeal. On the grounds that Scotland and the north-east have had a city of culture, and Londonderry in Northern Ireland was the city of culture, if there is any sort of turn to be taken or regional coverage to progress, it is clearly time for the midlands to have one. Coventry is at the centre of the midlands, which is at the centre of our bid, and we can assure the House and the country of a very fine series of great, exciting and innovative events, in line with the long tradition of innovation in Coventry.

I thank the hon. Gentleman; I will reference him later in my remarks. His point about the engagement with youth and the value of the wider application of this title to the area was well made.

Coventry has a rich architectural heritage, with St Mary’s Guildhall, the Charterhouse and, of course—as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden—the magnificent cathedral, which is one of the city’s most important assets and, as a living architectural symbol of the UK’s post-war reconstruction and hope, perhaps one of the most important modern buildings in the UK. The city is also home to two universities, which both contribute to the cultural assets of the city and the UK. Coventry University has developed a strong reputation for the quality of its arts and media courses and for its work as an incubator of the next generation of young talent in the cultural and creative industries. I believe we have at least one of its alumni here today.

Some of Coventry’s other great cultural assets include the Belgrade theatre—the main building-based producing theatre in Coventry—and Warwick arts centre, on the University of Warwick campus, which is one of the largest multi-art form venues in the UK, delivering an extensive programme of performing and visual arts and film. There is also the highly respected Coventry transport museum, which houses the largest publicly owned collection of British vehicles in the world and tells the story of Coventry and its people through the development of the automotive industry. The museum will no doubt hold many memories for the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), who was involved in the motor industry there for many years. The city’s arts and exhibition space, the Herbert art gallery and museum, hosts major touring exhibitions and permanent galleries chronicling the history of the city.

Coventry is also home to a number of exciting contemporary arts organisations and individuals, and has shown how it can deliver exciting, large-scale events. For example, the Godiva festival is an annual free festival that attracts more than 140,000 visitors. It has a genuinely diverse family audience, drawing from a wide range of communities and across the age spectrum. There is also the Festival of Imagineers, run by Imagineer Productions, which is a week-long festival celebrating innovation linking art, design and engineering, and acting as a catalyst for new creative work at the intersection of art and engineering.

On funding, significant cultural investment has been made in those and other projects and programmes in Coventry over the years. In the 21 years since the Heritage Lottery Fund was created, more than £30 million has been invested in 125 separate projects, including more than £12 million on historic buildings and monuments and more than £4 million on parks. Over the past seven years, Arts Council England has invested more than £21 million, supporting a range of arts organisations and excellent, innovative projects.

In June, ACE announced future funding for 2018-22 to its national portfolio of organisations in Coventry of £8.3 million. That is an increase of almost a third, from £1.5 million a year during the current period to more than £2 million a year for the 2018-22 period. That four years of confirmed funding gives those organisations the ability to plan ahead and develop strategic partnerships, which in turn bring more cultural product and funding into towns and cities.

The cumulative impact of that investment has helped to drive the ongoing development of this historic city. I know there are many more plans in the pipeline, including for Drapers’ Hall, which has received £1 million from the Government, to develop as a venue for music performance and education. Most recently, Coventry has been awarded just under £1.5 million from the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund’s Great Place scheme to stage a programme of events celebrating the heritage and communities of Coventry. The award builds on the city’s new 10-year cultural strategy, its cultural destinations award and its bid to be UK city of culture.

The Minister is certainly making an impressive case for Coventry. I have no doubt that Coventry would hold the city of culture title with distinction, and that Coventry 2021 would be a huge success. However, with the bigger emphasis on regeneration in this year’s competition, does he agree that Paisley, with its economic and social needs, allied with its many cultural delights, has a strong chance of winning?

I will not be drawn on the likelihood of that. It is abundantly clear from all that we have heard this morning that, in common with the other shortlisted areas, including Paisley, Coventry has the ambition, the heritage and the cultural infrastructure to be the next city of culture. I think it is apt to finish with some thoughts from a Coventry-based company of artists, Talking Birds, who specialise in acts of transformation. They talk about Coventry as a city rich in possibility, and even though its inhabitants like to think that they are not too attached to the place, the truth is that they are. They enjoy the city’s contradictions and believe in its potential. I wish Coventry the best of luck in its bid. We do not have many more weeks to wait until the outcome.

Question put and agreed to.