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Perth’s Cultural Contribution to the UK

Volume 626: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Freer.)

I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the cultural contribution of the city of Perth to the United Kingdom’s national life. As we await with bated breath the shortlist for the 2021 UK city of culture, our cultural contribution to this nation is vast, overwhelming and ever evolving. Nevertheless, we are not a city that rests on its laurels. We are a city that is rich in heritage and culture, oozing confidence and simply dripping with ambition. With our dramatic riverside setting in the heart of Scotland, where highland meets lowland, in the middle of a hybrid cultural melting pot, we are by far the most beautiful and attractive of all the city of culture candidates.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that support for the city of Perth goes beyond his party and his country? There are Government Members, whom he would no doubt refer to as Sassenachs, who think that Perth is a great city.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend—I call him that because, as I think you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, he is my colleague in the rock band MP4—for that contribution. I do, of course, recognise the fact that Perth’s bid is supported in constituencies throughout the United Kingdom.

Our plan is to make Perth one of Europe’s great small cities and, in achieving that, give confidence to the other small cities and large towns throughout the United Kingdom. Let me tell you a little about the city of Perth, Mr Deputy Speaker, because our story is utterly unique and like no other, and I know that you are a student of the civic attributes of so many of the communities represented in this House.

Perth is the ancient capital of Scotland. In the 9th century, Kenneth MacAlpin forged the Kingdom of Alba from the Picts and the Scots and was crowned Scotland’s first King at Scone. From then on, every King of Scotland was crowned on the stone of destiny in Scone, which is now part of the Perth city region. I shall say more on that artefact later.

Perth became a royal burgh in 1210, and by the early 14th century it was the most fortified settlement in the whole of Scotland. In the 16th century, the Scottish reformation was sparked in Perth, when John Knox preached in the wonderful surrounds of St John’s kirk in the heart of the city. Our place in Scotland’s pre-industrial history was secured and cemented with a pre-eminent place in the Jacobite struggles and the idea and creation of the modern nation of Scotland.

With industrialisation, Perth’s contribution was matched only by our contribution to the concurrent Scottish enlightenment. Our whisky, dyeing and linen, and our industry powered by the mills along the River Tay, were matched by the cultural contributions from John Duncan Fergusson and Patrick Geddes.

In the 20th century, the city of Perth became the administrative centre for much of the Scottish whisky industry and for Scottish agriculture. It offered fantastic financial services, particularly insurance, which is still a feature of the city today. From the 1940s, hydro-electric dams shaped communities and landscapes right across highland Perthshire, signalling the coming of the renewable energy revolution.

To bring things right up to date, five years ago we were awarded full city status by Her Majesty the Queen during her diamond jubilee celebrations, in recognition of Perth’s contribution to the civic, cultural and national life of not just Scotland but the whole United Kingdom.

We simply overflow with cultural activities. We have four nationally recognised arts organisations: Horsecross Arts, Culture Perth and Kinross, Pitlochry Festival theatre and the Perth festival of the arts. We have 20 dedicated cultural venues, including the wonderful Perth concert hall, which is celebrating its 12th year this year and is the largest concert-hall venue outside the Scottish central belt and, in my view, the finest concert hall in Scotland.

We are in the process of renovating our existing cultural estate with the creation of a new cultural quarter in the Mill Street area of the city and the multi-million pound redevelopment of the wonderful Perth theatre, which is one of the oldest and best-established theatres in not just Scotland but the whole United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend is making excellent points about why Perth should be the city of culture. Does he agree that Perth is the ideal location, not least because some of the areas nearby, such as North East Fife, would benefit hugely from Perth’s city of culture statue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a son of Perth and knows the city particularly well. We are of course partners in the Tay cities deal, and I am pretty certain that the energy and activity sparked by Perth being the city of culture will be reflected in his constituency, too.

We are the only one of the bidding cities that has a premier league football team that is still competing in European competition, though that might be short-lived as the mighty St Johnstone take to the fields of Lithuania tomorrow night to try to get a goal back.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing tonight’s Adjournment debate. He will be aware of how fond I am of Perth, particularly of the mighty St Johnstone—good luck to them tomorrow night in Lithuania. What does it say about the cultural impact of Perth when the title of tonight’s debate is Perth’s cultural contribution to the UK? The debate I held on Paisley’s merits was about Paisley’s cultural contribution to the world, so there is a serious lack of ambition from Perth. Seriously, I wish Perth all the very best. Here is to a Scottish winner of the competition.

I think I am grateful for that contribution. It was a cunning plan to get the city and culture into the one title, which we have just about achieved. I say to my hon. Friend that I know that we are rivals in trying to be shortlisted for this competition, but the city of Perth will fall right behind the large town of Paisley if it is shortlisted. I am pretty certain that the large town of Paisley will fall behind the city of Perth if it is us who are successful in this bid. With all our particular cultural attributes, we are more than able and willing to carry with distinction the badge of UK city of culture.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter tonight. Obviously, I look forward to working with him to help to secure the city of culture bid for Perth. Hopefully, he will agree that it is not just Perth that will benefit directly, but wider Perthshire—the 12 towns and the more than 100 settlements that feed in and further enrich Perth and that are enriched by Perth. We should also look back at Perthshire’s cultural contribution to the UK, which started not in the middle ages, but goes right back to Roman settlements. There were Roman roads and trading with the Roman Empire. A contribution was made by taking artefacts from Scotland and throughout the rest of the UK to the wider Roman Empire. In Perthshire, we have Innerpeffray Library, which was established in 1680 and was the first lending library in Scotland. I hope that he will consider the wider Perthshire area and its benefits in his proposal for the city of culture bid.

Can I just say that Members should make interventions, not speeches? I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants to save that speech for another occasion.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I was coming on to mention the big hinterland issues that support this particular bid. May I also congratulate him on what he said? I thought that I was doing well going as far back as Kenneth MacAlpin, but he has managed to beat me by going back to Roman settlement times. I thank him for that and look forward to working with a fellow Perthshire MP to ensure that this bid will be progressed.

This bid is truly inspired, innovative and creative. It fully captures the spirit and the idea of the UK city of culture. At the heart of our bid is a determination to tackle the quiet crisis faced by cities such as Perth and the 30 million people in the UK who live outside our big cities. It is a bid that speaks for the small cities and large towns where so many of our fellow citizens live; that recognises our particular issues, challenges and agendas; and that looks beyond the veneer of scale and rurality—where rural beauty can sometimes mask rural poverty and social isolation. I am talking about small cities where the lack of high-value jobs drives talent elsewhere, particularly among our young people. It is in this setting where culture could make a real difference in connecting people and places. In reply to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham), we believe that an outstanding city of culture is as meaningful for the people living in its hinterland as it is for those living in the city itself. We want Perth to lead the way in defining these issues and that agenda.

The quiet crisis that I mentioned is characterised in Perthshire by three big challenges, which is our dependency on tourism, hospitality and agriculture where wages are 9% below the Scottish average.

Perth is often seen as a prosperous city. I concede that it is, but sometimes the veneer of prosperity masks real defining issues such as a low-wage and low-skill economy, which is depressingly still a feature of so much of Perth’s community. Some 38% of neighbourhoods are classed as financially stretched, one in five children live in poverty and cultural participation among the 20% most deprived communities is limited in its opportunity. It is the quiet crisis of 150,000 people living across a massive 5,000 square miles with the associated social isolation and low cultural participation levels. These challenges are no less urgent and real than those faced by the big cities, but they are less recognised. We hope to change that in the course of the bid.

Our bid will focus on the contribution of small cities and large towns to the UK economy, alongside the large-scale cultural regeneration programmes that are a transforming feature of our big cities. Different approaches are needed for different types of cities to unlock the potential of places such as Perth and tackle the quiet crisis that they face.

We will use UK city of culture to make real step changes, using culture as a transformative tool and raising the bar for great small cities with imagination, joy, wonder, emotion and surprise. Since Sir Walter Scott’s time, Perth has been known as the fair city. It is a name with which we are very familiar and one that has become intimately associated with the city of Perth, but we want to move beyond the fair city. We will celebrate Perth’s beauty and place at the heart of Scotland’s story, but we will do so by jump-starting our future. We will honour Perth’s heart and our extraordinary history, including a mass celebration of our bid for the stone of destiny to be rightly returned to Perthshire. We will have that tick-box attraction that will drive new generations of tourists to our wonderful city.

We want it to be wild, taking outstanding creative work into the extraordinary landscape surrounding Perth—our wild places, hillsides, lochs and rivers—and giving a voice to the new tribes of the 21st century. We want it to be beyond, starting in our medieval city vennels, the ancient but clogged arteries that criss-cross Perth, flowing through the rivers connecting the city to its hinterland. And it will be connected, both physically and digitally. We are looking to democratise access to culture in a world where people can create and access it across many different and varied platforms. As the infrastructure to deliver this improves and becomes more accessible, we want to ensure that visitor experiences are improved and enhanced. Technology can enable togetherness. We will use it as such.

All this will be created with the participation of the 150,000 citizens living in the Perth city region. We expect more than 740,000 people to take part in person during 2021, and around 650,000 via our ambitious digital platform projects. We can deliver this. Our plans are fully costed and our bid is built on solid roots of delivery, bringing public services and communities together to plan and deliver these priorities across our city region.

We are looking for a solid legacy. By 2022, Perth can be the place that has led the way for other small cities and large towns by reconnecting with its huge hinterland through culture. We hope to create 1,500 jobs in the creative industries by 2021 and an extra 60 additional creative industry start-ups by 2025, to grow our creative sector by 25% to £58 million gross value added by 2021 and to £72 million by 2025, to increase our annual tourism visitors to 2.6 million in 2021, to recruit 2,500 volunteers for Perth 2021 and have 40,000 people volunteering annually by 2025. We hope to increase cultural participation in our most deprived communities by 16% by 2025. We will use the city of culture title to leave a profound legacy and kick-start our future beyond the fair city.

All these targets are undoubtedly achievable not just by the city that wins the title, but by all the bidding cities. If they want an example of that, they have to look no further than Glasgow, whose cultural renaissance began with its award of European city of culture in 1990. I wish all the cities competing for the title the best of luck.

I do, too. I actually performed on the evening when Glasgow was granted its European city of culture status. It was in Glasgow Square, on the eve of 1989 to 1990. I am pretty sure my hon. Friend was not there, but he is absolutely right: even just the process of bidding is transformative for these large towns and cities. I have a particular vested interest in the city of Perth, and I hope we are successful, but I do wish all the other cities well.

I believe in this bid. The time is right for the voice of the small cities to be heard; for us to be held in the same regard as the big cities of the United Kingdom and to have our agendas addressed; for new cultural regeneration models to emerge in small cities, alongside what works in the large cites; and for us to speak for the 30 million people who live in communities such as Perth.

We are a unique and beautiful small city, and our cultural and heritage assets reflect Perth as the place where ancient Scotland was forged and modern Scotland was shaped. In Perth we have the capacity, the potential, the passion, the imagination and the means to do this. Perth is simply the place.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this debate about the city of Perth’s cultural contribution to the UK—and, indeed, the world. Once again, he has demonstrated that he is a passionate advocate for the city and its ambition to become the 2021 UK city of culture. Of course, as many in the House know, his cultural credentials are exemplary. He was a member of the bands Big Country and Runrig, and is the only MP ever to have appeared on “Top of the Pops”. He has been a passionate advocate for culture in this House.

While listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, I was very aware of the qualities of the bid. These are undoubtedly exciting times for Perth, the fair city, as indeed they are for the other 10 areas bidding for this prestigious title. I know that the shortlist announcement is eagerly awaited, and the independent advisory panel for the competition met recently to assess the bids. I will be carefully considering its recommendations before deciding the shortlist, and we expect to be able to let people know the outcome around the middle of this month.

I want to say a few words about the city of culture before I address the hon. Gentleman’s excellent remarks about Perth. The UK city of culture programme enables places in the UK—they do not actually have to be a city—to compete every four years to hold the title. UK city of culture status helps a place to use culture and creativity to regenerate and transform, attracting visitors, bringing communities together, promoting new partnerships and raising the profile of its culture. Competing places are expected to build a high-quality arts and cultural programme that reaches a wide variety of audiences and leads to lasting social and economic regeneration. Derry-Londonderry was the first UK city of culture in 2013, and Hull is the incumbent.

I have been very impressed by the wide range of places that have thrown their hat into the ring for 2021. We have the smallest cities from England and Wales, in Wells, and in St Davids and the Hundred of Dewisland. There are also larger cities such as Sunderland, Coventry and Stoke-on-Trent. As we have heard, we have an old town, in Paisley, and a new one, in Warrington. There is another rural bid from Hereford and a south-coast entrant, in Portsmouth.

Perth itself has ambitions to be a different type of city of culture from what we have seen so far, and that has been eloquently set out by the hon. Gentleman this evening. Smaller entrants may see the competition in a different way—as a means to support and strengthen communities, rather than to promote physical and economic regeneration.

I am very clear that the economic and social importance of culture to places is now widely acknowledged and uncontested. That was underlined in our culture White Paper, which was published last year by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), and it is equally recognised, I hope, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Taking part in the arts improves self-esteem, confidence and health, and brings people together. It makes people feel good about themselves and the environment around them. Culture has played a big part in redeveloping and energising Liverpool and Hull. Their national and international profiles have soared as European capital of culture and UK city of culture respectively.

I want to spend a few moments assessing the effects of Hull 2017. Hull has seen a number of key benefits, and its UK city of culture year has also identified many opportunities for the future. I was fortunate enough to be able to see and hear about them first hand when I visited the city in my first week as Minister a couple of weeks ago. In 2013, when Hull was bidding for the title, little more than a third of residents participated in the arts. Now, nine out of 10 residents have attended or experienced a cultural event or activity as part of Hull 2017.

The first three-month season saw about 1.4 million visits to more than 450 events and activities. There were half a million visits to Hull’s museums and galleries in the first four months of the year, and visits to Ferens Art Gallery and Hull Maritime Museum are up by more than 500%. Moreover, 70% of residents say that Hull being the UK city of culture is positively affecting their lives. Almost everyone who has attended an event has enjoyed it. I am also delighted that there have been more than 100,000 hours of volunteering so far. All volunteers have my deep appreciation and thanks.

The economic boost is substantial, too, amounting to £60 million in 2017 alone. Hotel occupancy is up by 14% and train journeys are up by 17%. Almost 90 new businesses and 550 new jobs have been created since 2013, and more than half of city centre businesses reported benefits in the first three months of this year.

I really enjoyed seeing some of the fabulous Hull 2017 projects. A particular highlight for me was Ferens Art Gallery. Some £1.5 million of Government investment has supported the refurbishment of this world-class gallery, which shows some of the finest local and national art. We will continue to showcase the power of culture to transform communities through initiatives like UK city of culture and the great exhibition of the north, which will take place next year in Newcastle-Gateshead, which I also visited a couple of weeks ago.

Let me turn, very happily, to Perth’s bid for UK city of culture 2021. All the 2021 entrants have looked at Hull and seen the opportunities it would bring. We have heard today, very eloquently, about Perth’s ambitions. We have heard how the area faces a “quiet crisis” whereby many people in the region feel alienated. There is enormous beauty, but there are also pockets of poverty and social isolation. The city wants to better connect people in the rural areas, as my new hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham), from the south of the county, has explained. We want the city of culture programme to help to tackle social isolation, to overcome the public transport barriers that put people off visiting city centre venues, and to help to develop a night-time economy. The city wants to shine a light on its present and future, as well as its glorious heritage. It wants to be seen as one of Europe’s great small cities. Perth’s creative industry sector currently has the capacity to expand, it would be fair to say, so it wants to attract new talent and encourage existing talent to remain.

Perth has already shown with the Ryder cup that it can welcome huge numbers of international visitors, and it wants to sustain that level of tourism. It possesses an enviable collection of cultural and heritage assets. St Ninian’s cathedral, a category A-listed building, has received more than £150,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund for restoration works. The HLF has also recently provided funding for repairs to St Stephen’s Roman Catholic church, the Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust, and the Croft Woodlands Project.

Perth concert hall is currently hosting the Southern Fried festival of American roots music, and it will be one of the venues for the 2021 Royal National Mòd, if the bid is successful. The Black Watch Museum hosted the ceramic poppy sculpture “Weeping Window” last year as part of the 14-18 NOW first world war centenary arts programme. There are plans to transform Perth’s city hall and ambitions for it to house the stone of destiny.

It is great to hear my hon. Friend listing Perth’s many virtues. Since a Scottish city is yet to be awarded UK city of culture status, does he agree that it is time for the award to come to Scotland—and what better city than Scotland’s newest city in Perth?

My hon. Friend makes a passionate case. As I said earlier, we do not have much longer to wait.

Perth theatre and St Paul’s church are also being refurbished. I also want to highlight the UK cultural contribution of Perth Museum and Art Gallery. It has hosted the joint Tate and National Galleries of Scotland project “Artist Rooms”. The recent £10 million investment in the gallery offers an exciting opportunity to partner with Tate Britain, focusing on the gallery’s outstanding collection of paintings by John Duncan Fergusson.

I cannot emphasise enough that whoever is the ultimate winner, Perth, like all the bidders, will benefit from having entered the competition. Dundee’s bid for city of culture 2017, although it was ultimately unsuccessful, brought incredible benefits to the area. Dundee has gone ahead with the V&A Dundee Museum of Design and plans to bid to become European capital of culture in 2023. I am very clear that preparing a bid generates new ideas, creates new partnerships and energises the cultural sectors. A candidate city can have a higher profile both at home and abroad, which may bring new investment and opportunities to attract many more visitors. Remember, Hull was successful only the second time around. The area learned so much from its first attempt, and it used that learning when making its successful bid for 2017.

I commend Perth for its ambition in seeking to become UK city of culture 2021 and the enthusiasm that it has shown throughout the bidding process. The prize of UK city of culture status is huge, and I am delighted to see so many—and such diverse—areas seeking the rewards that placing culture at the heart of their offering can bring. The UK has unmatched cultural assets. The UK city of culture competition unleashes the power of culture to transform places’ futures through ambitious, inspiring and groundbreaking projects.

I pay tribute once again to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire and colleagues on both sides of the House, and to Perth and Kinross Council, for all their determined support for Perth’s bid. There is now only a short wait until the House, the country and the world will know which bids will be shortlisted.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.