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UK City of Culture 2025: County Durham’s Bid

Volume 712: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered County Durham’s bid to become the UK’s City of Culture 2025.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. It is a delight to see colleagues from across the political parties, and from Durham and further afield, in the Chamber.

After much work from Durham County Council and many other organisations, I know that I am not alone in feeling thrilled that our bid has placed us among the four finalists, although I never doubted we would be. Having watched the debates on city of culture bids from two of the other finalists, I admit that we face stiff competition, but Durham is no ordinary county and is the most worthy of being the 2025 city of culture. I am confident that we can demonstrate that.

Our case can best be summarised by the historical motto of the Durham Miners’ Association:

“Into the Light: The past we inherit, the future we build”.

Let me begin by discussing that history, because from Bede to Beveridge, we have quite a lot of it.

If there is one landmark associated with Durham, the land of the prince bishops, it is undoubtedly Durham cathedral. Construction began in 1090; it is well over 1,000 years old and has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1986. In addition to its stunning architectural beauty, it holds the remains of the Venerable Bede and St Cuthbert’s relics. It forms part of the Camino Inglés—the English way—which is a walk that includes Finchale abbey, Durham cathedral and the seventh-century Saxon Escomb church, south of Bishop Auckland. Before I came to this place, I had the opportunity with the rotary club to visit that ancient church on several occasions. That is the route traditionally taken by northern European pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

A comparatively more recent religious site in Durham is Ushaw college, which was founded in the 19th century by Catholic scholars who fled the French revolution. For a mere 200 years, it served as the primary seminary in the north for training Roman Catholic priests. It closed in 2011, but the site remains important to the area, as it now houses the Durham University Business School and the Ushaw college library. Its buildings and gardens provide an excellent day out for tourists and locals alike.

In this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, culture, tradition and history are so important, so I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s bid. Does he agree that the rich history and heritage of the City of Durham, coupled with the community mindset, as outlined by the wonderful Tree of Hope in its bid, shows the strength of the proposal? That needs to be recognised at every level, and part of that is clearly to be the UK city of culture.

I could not agree more. We must recognise at every level how important city of culture status is and the value it can bring to Durham.

Alongside the cathedral is Durham castle. We have lots of castles, including Brancepeth, Lumley, Lambton, Walworth, Witton, and, of course, Barnard Castle.

Aside from its religious significance, Durham has been a place of technological and social innovation. I will come on to the history of the railways in a moment, but first I want to discuss the town of Newton Aycliffe in my patch. It was the very first of the post-war new towns. It was founded in 1947 under the New Towns Act 1946, and William Beveridge, the architect of the modern welfare state, chose it as a flagship new town to demonstrate how the new welfare state of council housing, free education and full employment would work. Beveridge became the chairman of Aycliffe Development Corporation, which, he said, aimed at

“making a town better than anything in the past, a town that will be an example for the future. We shall do our utmost to make the town both happy for its inhabitants and famous as an example to Britain and the world.”

Although the country and the welfare system both look considerably different today from when Beveridge set out his plans, the pandemic has demonstrated what an important role the Government play in our lives.

Any debate about Durham county of course must mention its mining heritage. Durham County Council has taken the city of culture bid’s motto from the miners’ association. The last of the mines closed a generation ago and we are looking to the bright future ahead, but we cannot forget the role that mining played in developing and sustaining the area for so long. My grandfather went down the Dean and Chapter mine in Ferryhill, and we remain proud of our mining heritage even if it no longer supports our economy. A visit to Redhills, the Pitman’s Parliament, is an absolute must for anybody who visits the area.

I know my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) would likely have raised Killhope, but since he cannot, I will do it for him. Otherwise known as the north of England lead mining museum, it opened in 1984 after decades of neglect and is located in the North Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty. Naturally, it has won a number of awards. It has one of only two surviving William Armstrong waterwheels and is a highly educational experience for anyone interested in learning about the area’s lead mining history. I am sure my hon. Friend would also mention cultural landmarks such as the Empire theatre in Consett, the Roxy project in Leadgate, the Weardale Museum and Jack Drum Arts.

In addition to the cathedral and mining, rail travel is a crucial aspect of Durham’s history. The Stockton and Darlington railway first opened in 1825, meaning that the city of culture year will coincide with the bicentenary of the celebrations of that historic line. I hope that combining the Stockton and Darlington bicentenary with the city of culture celebrations will also give the necessary impetus to restoring Locomotion No. 1—not the engine, but the pub that used to be Heighington station on the Aycliffe levels, which is where Locomotion No. 1 was first assembled and put on the line. It is currently up for auction for a second time, and I hope the new owners will renovate it sensitively to demonstrate our rail heritage at its best in time for 2025.

As far as political history goes, one of my predecessors, a Prime Minister, brought world leaders such as George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac to the Dun Cow in Sedgefield and the County in Aycliffe village respectively. Both of those have rooms and excellent food offers for visitors as they come for the event.

Military history also abounds owing to the many battles we had with the Scots and the Picts, as we are so close to Hadrian’s Wall. Our more modern military history is founded on Newton Aycliffe, where the Aycliffe angels made millions of munitions for world war two, many of which were dispatched through Ferryhill station. Hoped-for improvements to the station and the Weardale railway from the railway restoration fund will, I hope, enhance transport to Durham when the celebrations are on.

Durham already has some excellent transport links, which is a clear benefit for any city of culture as it allows people from across the country to visit. Indeed, Durham is almost exactly in the centre of the country, equidistant from the north coast of Scotland and the south coast of England. Since we are on the east coast main line, it takes less than three hours to get to us from London and about the same from Glasgow. For international travellers we are accessible via Teesside and Newcastle airports. Drivers can of course reach us on the A1. Lastly, travellers who want to travel under their own steam can take advantage of the sea-to-sea cycle route. It crosses Durham from the amazing countryside of Weardale in the west to the enchanting heritage coast, which is internationally recognised for its rare plants and wildlife.

If some of those watching the debate prefer nature to city-based activities, we have an abundance of offerings in that regard too. From the upper dales to the coast, there is something for everyone, with plenty of museums in between such as the chateau-style Bowes Museum—a purpose-built public art gallery near Barnard Castle that houses the amazing Silver Swan, which is particularly notable. Of course, one of the biggest attractions in the area is Beamish, an open-air museum that tells the story of life in the north-east of England during the 1820s, 1900s, 1940s and 1950s over almost 350 acres.

Although being the 2025 city of culture would help Durham develop its enormous potential, I must mention some of the cultural activities that we already have. First and foremost is the Lumiere festival that is put on by Durham County Council every other year. Last year’s celebration saw over 40 art installations throughout the county, and it is completely free to attend. It just so happens that that is on in 2025.

I have spent most of this speech discussing the qualities of Durham that are difficult to quantify, such as our rich heritage, but I want to turn for a moment to what city of culture status would mean for us in economic terms: more than £40 million in direct spending, with at least half of the contracts going to local suppliers; more than 1,000 jobs created or kept; and more than 900usb businesses and organisations benefiting. Durham County Council estimates that by 2029, city of culture status would see an additional 200 creative enterprises, and over 2,500 more creative industry jobs.

In terms of the tourism Durham would receive, the council expects that we would see almost 16 million more visitors, including 4 million more overnight visitors and 3.5 million international visitors. That would result in £700 million more in visitor spending, and up to 1,800 more tourism jobs. Cities across the UK have suffered from the loss of tourism in the past couple of years, but by 2025 we will hopefully be a few years out of the pandemic. I know that being city of culture would give Durham’s tourism industry the boost it needs now more than ever, giving clear support to the Government’s work on levelling up.

Returning to the bicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington railway, this event is already of global significance—there are so many people on this planet who like trains. I am sure that the Minister, with his culture hat on, will have already begun scheduling his visit to the 2025 railway celebrations. That is the central point: we can compare our offer of cultural events, coastline, countryside and UNESCO world heritage sites, but it is only Durham that specifically in 2025 offers a globally significant anniversary that will already be attracting visitors from all over the world. Declaring Durham as the city of culture will hopefully mean that all of those visitors will bring their friends, families and everybody else with them to see everything else that can be offered by the county. That multiplier opportunity is why, for 2025 in particular, there can be only one place to award city of culture status—the county of Durham.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) both for securing this important debate and for allowing me to make a short contribution. It is vital that MPs in County Durham temporarily set aside our political differences and work together in support of a bid that would bring enormous economic and cultural benefits to the county we all represent. I am also grateful to Culture Durham, Durham County Council and Durham University, as well as all the businesses, organisations, creative industries and local residents who have worked so hard to deliver such as strong bid for Durham.

I will start by talking about Durham’s heritage, and in particular our mining industry. Anyone who has been lucky enough to visit Redhills, a building I was fortunate enough to have my office in, will have sat in the incredible Pitman’s Parliament and admired the lodge banners as they walked through the beautiful corridors. Becoming immersed in the building, its history and the history of the surrounding area cannot be helped. It reminds visitors of our industrial past, and how our history of trade unionism has left behind a culture of resilience, community and solidarity in Durham. While everyone at Redhills is justifiably proud of their past, rather than dwelling needlessly on former glories, they use them as an inspiration. That attitude is underpinned by their moto, which I am delighted has been adopted by Durham 2025:

“The past we inherit, the future we build”.

That saying is relevant to the aims of the bid, because today County Durham faces many challenges, such as a loss of industry, high street decline and growing levels of deprivation in our communities, to name just a few. However, alongside those challenges, our county has so much to offer culturally, economically and socially. We have the world-class university, emerging creative industries, a growing green economy and a growing independent business sector. If we look at just the city itself, there is the internationally important UNESCO world heritage site, the River Wear winding its way through the centre of the city—with boats available for budding rowers—the historic town hall and the wonderful news that Crook hall and gardens will be reopening in July. There is also Durham cathedral, which is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in the country, at the heart of the world heritage site. It was featured in two Harry Potter films, as well as several of the “Avenger” movies.

Durham is also home to the miners’ gala—known locally as the big meeting—where every year hundreds and thousands of people gather to celebrate trade unionism and working class solidarity. This annual event has been running since 1871 and has only ever been interrupted by war or a pandemic. It is not just a celebration of past history in the region; it is a show of pride in our roots, a coming together of different communities from across the whole country and indeed the world, a recognition of what we have in common with others, and a really fun day out.

Durham is a creative place. A visitor to the villages across my constituency or throughout the county will be met with people just quietly celebrating culture and history in the region, or those creating new art and culture, such as the Bearpark Artists, or those providing space for budding musical artists and producers, such as Rocking Horse Rehearsal Rooms right in the heart of the city.

Although the Durham 2025 bid will not be a magic wand for the challenges faced by the county, it is a unique opportunity to utilise our area’s strengths, kick-start investment and help our county realise its enormous potential. That is why the words of the Durham miners resonate so strongly with this bid. What is a city of culture if not an opportunity to build on Durham’s future? It is impossible to read about the bid without being excited about what it could mean for our county.

As well as an exciting calendar of events, the bid promises genuine investment with a pledge of more than £40 million of direct spending for Durham 2025, with at least 50% of contracts going to local suppliers, which will create and protect more than 1,000 jobs in an area that is in desperate need of support. Becoming the city of culture will have a transformative impact on our region’s creative industries, with 15.7 million more visitors coming to Durham, and the creation of 1,800 more jobs. This is the time for our region to shine again and for the people of County Durham to believe that we have something here. I truly believe that the process begins with the city of culture.

Under instruction, I will keep my contribution as brief as I can.

Over the weekend, I had the immense pleasure of attending one of the cultural events of the year in Bishop Auckland, the Bishop Auckland Food Festival. The reason I am struggling a bit today is that my stomach is still full from Yorkshire pudding wraps and amazing sausage sandwiches and Scotch eggs—only a snippet of the incredible food culture we have in our county.

I have to go only slightly into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) to get to the incredible Raby Hunt Michelin-starred restaurant, which is not only nationally renowned but world renowned. I look forward to eventually being able to afford a meal there—it is a wonderful place and I cannot wait to go. At the other end of the scale, we have some incredible local cafés, such as Café Cheesedale in my constituency, which set up just before the pandemic and has had an incredible pandemic, offering a real outdoors escape for people to go and enjoy a meal with their family, see the pigs and the cows and enjoy some locally produced cheese.

It is not just food—we have some cracking breweries as well. In my constituency, we are fortunate to have McColl’s and the Barnard Castle Brewing Company. If people are not for beer but fancy gin later on—perhaps when we are here for late votes—they can always pick up some Durham gin, a wonderful tipple.

Of course, it is not just about food and drink, although that plays a vital part in all our lives, but about heritage. In County Durham, we are fortunate to have some really incredible heritage. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield and the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) have already spoken about the Durham miners’ gala, which I hope to be able to attend this year for the very first time. That mining heritage shines right throughout our county. In my constituency, we have a mining museum that features some incredible art created by miners when they were sitting in the pits; we also have the wonderful Norman Cornish gallery in Spennymoor, where some of the incredible work of that absolute world legend can be seen. I encourage everyone to visit.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield said, heritage also comes in the form of military heritage. I am delighted to say that the joint administration in Durham is finally bringing back the long-awaited Durham Light Infantry Museum after years of campaigning by local residents.

We also have some brilliant built heritage. Escomb church has already been mentioned. It is a centuries-old Saxon church that is on the international radar. Again, I would encourage anyone to pay a visit. However, if people really want to learn about the history of County Durham and the prince bishops, they have to go to Bishop Auckland and Kynren. It tells an incredible, spectacular tale in the outdoors about the history of our county. Kynren by the Auckland Project really sums up the incredible cultural assets we have in our county.

For people into art, there is good news. Not only do we now have the new Spanish Gallery, a faith museum that is due to open very soon, and the incredible Bowes Museum, we have great community artists as well in the form of the Pineapple Gallery, House of Smudge, and some brilliant street artists who are revolutionising the street scene in Bishop Auckland. We know that some of our high streets are struggling, but why should we look at grotty, rusty shutters when we could have brilliant street artists going out and showing the best of what they can offer?

If people like music and fancy a boogie, I would recommend a trip down to The Witham in Barnard Castle. Last time I went there was for Bootleg Blondie, which was, I must say, one of the best gigs I have ever been to. During the election campaign, my campaign manager told me that I could not have a night off. I ignored him and had a great time. I would recommend it to anyone.

There is also an incredible statue in Bishop Auckland commemorating Stan Laurel, which shows that the culture from Bishop Auckland can be seen all over the world. For a breath of fresh air, I would recommend going down to High Force, a beautiful waterfall right in the heart of Teesdale. It is a wonderful place to visit—and is also a great spot for selfies. I can see the Minister nodding away; we will have to get him up for a visit. People interested in the stars and figuring out our place in the universe should get themselves over to Grassholme Observatory, which runs an incredible educational programme, where one can learn all about the universe.

It would be remiss of me not to mention one final place—a place that in the spring of 2020 gained international renown. That place is Barnard Castle. It is an incredible town, where, a few weeks ago, I was very fortunate to see some of the best of the culture that was on offer when Mayor Rima Chatterjee held a Holi colour festival. I took part in the colour run and got covered in coloured powders. It was an incredible day, and lots of families got involved.

What I have said today just goes to show the breadth of culture that is available to everyone in our county. I am very fortunate to call County Durham my home. I want to extend an invitation to everyone to come and visit—not just in Parliament and the country, but all over the world. Come and see us. Come and see the best of what we have to offer. The best way to do that, Minister, is by making us the city of culture.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, although it is very rare for us to be in the same room without talking football—though I suppose that I just have.

I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) for securing this debate. He is a great advocate for his constituency. More broadly, he is an able champion for County Durham and the north-east. He is understandably delighted that Durham was recently shortlisted in what has proved to be a very competitive field for the sought-after title of UK city of culture 2025. I also thank the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their contributions today. We have many great advocates here, including my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden). He is unable to speak, because he is my Parliamentary Private Secretary, but I am sure that he agrees with everything that has been said today.

I would briefly like to talk about the UK city of culture programme before turning to Durham’s bid. Delivered by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in collaboration with the devolved Administrations, the UK city of culture is a quadrennial competition that supports culture-led regeneration to drive economic growth and attract investment. It is a key part of the Department’s broader offer to level up. The UK city of culture competition promotes culture as a catalyst for change. Enhancing culture’s role in the heart of our communities, the competition seeks to strengthen relationships and creative partnerships, ultimately making places more attractive to visit, live and work in, which we have heard about today.

It is worth reflecting on some of the benefits brought to previous winners of the competition. Coventry, the current UK city of culture, has delivered an ambitious year-long programme that is already transforming the city and supporting its citizens. With a community-led approach, Coventry City of Culture Trust has secured remarkable investment in local arts and community organisations. For example, despite having to delay its programme by six months due to the pandemic, Coventry has seen more than £172 million invested in the likes of concerts, public art displays and new children’s play areas in the city. There have been so many benefits.

Of course, previous cities of culture have also seen huge benefits. Before Coventry took the title, the 2017 winner, Hull, saw 5.3 million people visiting more than 2,800 events, and the 2013 winner, Derry/Londonderry, benefited from more than £150 million of public and private sector investment, so there is a huge upside to being selected. The benefits speak for themselves and explain why there is such interest, with a record 20 initial applicants expressing interest in the 2025 competition. After a long-list stage, Durham, along with three other locations—Bradford, Southampton, and Wrexham—was approved by the Secretary of State to make the shortlist for 2025. The panel chaired by Sir Phil Redmond, which is the next stage of the competition, will be visiting the four shortlisted places. We hope that the winner will be announced in Coventry at the end of May, and further assessment is going on at the moment.

I absolutely recognise that Durham’s bid is being delivered by Durham County Council, with Durham University acting as the principal partner on behalf of Culture Durham. Durham is home to world-famous heritage attractions, many of which we have heard about today. It is a very broad definition of heritage, involving music, arts, culture, historic sites and, indeed, food—my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland made me very hungry with her speech. Of course, Durham is also surrounded by beautiful landscapes, and many of its communities are built on proud industrial foundations. This culture and heritage is at the heart of its bid, and rightly so.

Talking about being at the heart of things, the comment from my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield was very telling. He said that, to the surprise of many, Durham is at the centre of Great Britain, although I think my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) claims that his constituency is absolutely at the centre. That always surprises people who do not wander north of Watford Gap too often.

As stated on its website, Durham’s bid aims to bring people and communities together, providing the opportunity to have a significant and sustained impact on the region’s economy. As hon. Members have outlined, there are significant plans for investment, a great upside and a considerable multiplier effect in the bid that is being proposed. Durham’s 2025 designation as UK city of culture would create an estimated 2,500 additional jobs in the creative industries alone, and would aim to attract more than 16 million visitors to the region. I have spoken on many occasions to my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield about the importance of tourism in the region and, in my other role as tourism Minister, that is something that is close to my heart. We have seen in previous competitions that being chosen as the UK city of culture really does deliver.

Importantly, even bids that have failed have nevertheless ended up getting considerable success from going through the process, because they then have a shovel-ready project, with business plans and business cases being built that can be used to apply for other funds, including heritage funds, Arts Council England funds and so on. I am absolutely confident that, having got as far as it has at the moment, Durham will see more value being delivered,

DCMS wants all bidders to take advantage of the bidding process. This was the first time that the eight long-listed places received a £40,000 grant to help support their applications. I know that the money is being used very intelligently and will therefore help, regardless of whether the bids win or lose—I hear the arguments about winning—and I hope that it will have helped with strengthening some of them.

I want to respond positively to the invitation to visit Durham that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has given me previously, and which I have heard again today from my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland. I absolutely commit to doing so, and we will sort that out in the diary, because there is so much in the region to see and do across the DCMS portfolios. I would like to finish by applauding the Durham bid team’s dedication and expressing my sincere appreciation for all their hard work so far. I wish Durham, and of course all the shortlisted places, the very best of luck in the final stages of the competition.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.