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House of Commons Hansard
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City of Culture 2021: Sunderland Bid
21 November 2017
Volume 631

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Sunderland’s bid to be City of Culture in 2021.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is an honour for me to be here to talk about my home city of Sunderland and its bid to be city of culture 2021. It came as no surprise to those of us who have had the privilege of calling Sunderland home that we were shortlisted for the coveted title alongside Coventry, Stoke, Swansea and Paisley. I understand that the Minister has listened to a number of these debates, but I am going to tell him all about Sunderland and why we should win.

My city has a long and proud history. It is a city built on industry and hard work, but which has struggled over the past 30 years to recover from the body blows of losing our shipbuilding and mining industries. When I was growing up, virtually every household had somebody working in one of those industries. Fuelled by a determination to renew itself, and after a decade of thinking and planning, the reawakening of my home city has begun.

As a city and a community we feel at a crossroads, and that the pathway leading to renewal and a brighter future is within our reach. Becoming city of culture would put us on the right path, enabling us to prosper and grow while showing the nation how culture can transform a city. If we win, it would be the culmination of 10 years’ preparation.

For those who do not know our city very well, we are often called a big village, because everybody knows each other. We are almost 300,000 in number, but we all have relatives living on the next street, and most of us live within a mile or two of where we were born, right across the social spectrum. So we are quite a special city.

Over the years, a revival has begun: a renaissance shaped and powered by culture. We have embedded arts and culture at the core of our economic master-plan and invested heavily in both infrastructure and people’s creativity and talent. We have done that with the generous help of others, particularly through valued partnerships with Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, who have bought into our vision and supported us.

Those who visit Sunderland will see physical regeneration happening on a scale I cannot remember. We have the New Wear Crossing nearing completion. Keel Square gives us a public space that we can gather on and hold events in, which was brought about by the realignment of Livingstone Road. The realignment of a road may not sound significant, but it is something I have been working on trying to get for more than 30 years, and it has opened up a number of possibilities.

The first building on the Vaux site is nearing completion, and there has been the recent reopening of the Victorian fire station, regenerated for modern use—it is not fighting fires any more—incorporating a bar and restaurant, and dance and theatre studios as well as a heritage centre to the fire service. All of those developments are at the centre of what is called the music and arts quarter redevelopment. Building works on the new theatre, next to the existing Empire theatre, will start soon.

Sunderland needs 2021 to make sure that our resurgence continues, so that the next generation can see every reason to stay in our city and no reason to leave. Our bid has galvanised and united the city. Businesses, our university, our college, our local housing group, our football club and organisations throughout the city have stood as one with the people of Sunderland in supporting the bid.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. While she is right to talk about much of what is happening in the city centre, does she agree that the bid takes in so much more than that? It will bring together all our distinct communities and showcase all the talents in our area and our rich and vibrant cultural heritage. Hopefully, all of our constituents will continue to benefit from this regeneration and growth.

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Absolutely. My hon. Friend in the neighbouring constituency represents an area that has the beautiful Herrington country park, developed on the site of a former pit heap. There are many wonderful things in her constituency, as indeed there are in the constituency of the other Sunderland MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland—

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The names have changed a lot over the years. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) has the F Pit Museum and Washington Old Hall, the ancestral home of George Washington. Things of a cultural nature are happening right across the city.

There is not lukewarm support but passionate backing for a project that the people want and the city needs. Our bid has also garnered the support of people from across the north-east region. Even the old rivalries between Sunderland and Newcastle have been put to one side on this one—anyone who understands rivalries in football will really know how passionate those rivalries are at times. Newcastle City Council passed a motion in support of our bid.

Neither the city of culture nor the European capital of culture has ever been awarded to a city in the north-east of England, despite strong bids by our neighbours Newcastle and Gateshead for European capital of culture 2008 and Durham for city of culture 2013. We are hoping it will be third time lucky.

Sunderland gets what a difference it would make: we understand that change would be fundamental and long-lasting. It is not just about the huge investment that would follow. Hull—some people say Hull is a north-east city, but it takes more than three hours to get there from Sunderland—forecasts that more than £3 billion will have flowed into its city thanks to being this year’s city of culture. Attracting an extra 1.6 million visitors, being the UK city of culture would change the way Sunderland is perceived regionally, nationally and internationally. The city that to some has become the symbol of Brexit would once again be seen as the warm, welcoming, modest, hard-working, tolerant, creative and innovative city we know it is.

Winning city of culture would be the catalyst for growth in our creative industries. We believe it would enable the growth of 150 new creative businesses, bringing in 750 sustainable jobs that our city needs. We understand how a successful bid would improve our health and wellbeing and help us become a more cohesive city. It is widely known that engagement and participation in the arts can have a positive, long-term effect on improving someone’s health and wellbeing—and particularly someone’s mental health, which is very much in the spotlight at the moment. An extended and improved cultural sector delivering more opportunities for people to engage in the arts would therefore have a meaningful impact on the city’s wellbeing.

Sunderland struggles with some of the most acute health challenges in the country, partly because of lifestyle choices but also significantly from our heritage of industrial working. The injection of cultural opportunity would do more for communities in Sunderland than anywhere else.

Communities become stronger and more understanding when working together on artistic projects. The participatory and collaborative nature of the arts and their informality promotes friendships and greater tolerance across cultural divides, even bridging language barriers.

Our city-wide conversations have inspired three creative themes: light, inventiveness and friendship. Those themes connect our past and future. They resonate with our local communities and would provide the stimulus for world-class cultural activity throughout 2021. They would strengthen the three strands of any successful city: its society, economy and culture.

Our opening season would be themed around friendship, bringing together communities across Wearside and welcoming visitors from around the world to a programme of art and culture inspired by questions about how we live together, both locally and globally. Our middle season would take inspiration from innovators, inventors and trailblazers past, present and future, to create a programme that will tackle the questions of how we make and shape the future of the world around us through our creativity and ingenuity.

Sunderland was home to Joseph Swan, the inventor of the electric light bulb, although he lost out on the patent to Edison; and before him to the glass makers, who brought stained glass window making to this country more than 1,300 years ago. Nowadays, we “Mackems” continue to innovate and invent, particularly in the IT and digital sector, as well as having the most productive car plant in Europe, which is often talked about in this place. Our final season would be inspired by the theme of light, and would be a celebration of the power of art and culture to enchant, inspire and illuminate new possibilities. Sunderland has long been an inspiration for artists and writers such as L.S. Lowry and Lewis Carroll, and painters talk of the special light that casts a glowing warmth over our fantastic beaches and coastline.

I want everyone to know just how special Sunderland is and, more than that, what city of culture status would do for our city. My city is a truly wonderful place for creativity. It is ambitious, brave and collaborative, like our bid. Winning UK city of culture 2021 would bring so much to our city and would help to reaffirm that Sunderland’s best days are not behind us, but most definitely still to come.

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I will start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate on Sunderland’s bid to become UK city of culture 2021. I also thank the other hon. Members who have contributed. It is surprising not to see hon. Members from Swansea, Stoke, Paisley or Coventry here, intervening aggressively, but that says something about the spirit of this competition. As the hon. Lady said, it is an exciting time for Sunderland and for the other four towns and cities shortlisted to be the next holders of that transformative and quite prestigious title.

Before I go further into my speech, I would like to say a few words about Councillor Paul Watson, who was the leader of Sunderland City Council until he died earlier this month. From the many tributes I have been made aware of, it is clear that Councillor Watson was a passionate and influential campaigner for Sunderland and the wider region, and always fought hard to get a good deal for the people of the north-east. As the Minister, I would like to express my sincere condolences to his family and colleagues. I understand that Councillor Watson was an enthusiastic supporter of the UK city of culture programme and of Sunderland’s bid, recognising not only the importance of the title and its ability to help regenerate and bring economic benefits, but its importance as a vehicle for expressing a city’s pride in its heritage and helping to build a new future.

As the Minister for arts, heritage and tourism, I see the UK city of culture programme as one of our nation’s crown jewels. The winning area must build a high-quality arts and cultural programme of national significance that reaches a wide variety of audiences and participants. As the hon. Lady said, and as we have seen with Hull, winning the city of culture also acts as a catalyst that can help to regenerate and transform an area for the people who live and work there.

It might be helpful if I update the House on where we have got to. This year, 11 places made an application to become UK city of culture 2021. Following a recommendation from the independent panel chaired by the excellent Phil Redmond, I agreed a shortlist of five in July. I have been deeply impressed to see how all the places bidding have engaged so fully in the city of culture process. Even more gratifying is to see how making a bid can in itself be transformational in raising a city’s profile and helping it to develop a clear set of cultural aspirations for the future. The hon. Lady has outlined some of the themes that are clear in Sunderland’s bid. Feedback from the places that did not make the shortlist—Hereford, Perth, Portsmouth, St David’s, Warrington and Wells—confirms that to be the case. I met representatives from some of those areas in September and heard how their participation in the UK capital of culture process is the start of a journey, not its end. Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Coventry and Swansea, the other shortlisted places, are nearing the end of the process along with Sunderland, and I will announce the winner next month.

There is clearly much to be gained for the winning city of culture. We know that taking part in the arts can improve self-esteem and confidence. 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 socioeconomic disadvantage. The economic and social importance of culture to place-making, as underlined by the Government’s White Paper on culture last year, is evident in emerging data and evidence coming from Hull, the current incumbent UK city of culture.

Before I address Sunderland, I thought it might be helpful to set out some of the benefits the title brings. I will set them against what we know has happened in Hull. Hull City Council estimates that the local economy has benefited by £3.3 billion in total investment since being awarded the title, four years ago in 2013. Seven out of 10 Hull residents say that the UK city of culture status is having a positive effect on their lives, largely because of the opportunities made available through its volunteering programme and participation at events across the city. Hull’s 2017 volunteers have already undertaken more than 300,000 volunteer hours, the equivalent of 34 years. City of culture status has restored local pride. Who can forget Hull City fans singing, “You’re only here for the culture,” at a premier league match earlier this year?

Finally, and very importantly, Hull has seen brilliant engagement with the arts. Nine out of 10 residents attended or experienced at least one cultural event in the first three months of the year—more than double the number engaging in such activities before the city’s bid. Those are amazing achievements, of which Hull City Council and the Hull city of culture company can be hugely proud.

I now address the substance of this debate, Sunderland’s bid to become the UK’s city of culture 2021. One of the great sincere pleasures of my job is learning about the history and culture of towns and cities across the UK. For example, in preparing for this debate I found out that England’s first ever stained glass window was created in Sunderland, almost 1,400 years ago. I also learned that Sunderland was one of the first places outside London to have a municipally funded museum. It has always been a place that showed cultural leadership. Like many other people, however, I am more familiar with Sunderland’s recent history as one of the world’s great shipbuilding cities. As the hon. Member for Sunderland Central said, the decline of shipbuilding and the coal industry has had a huge impact on the people of Sunderland. In common with Hull and other city of culture candidates, the city has needed to reinvent itself, and in this context it is using arts and culture to forge a new identity.

Sunderland now has a strong network of existing museums and galleries in the area, particularly the National Glass Centre, the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art and Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. There is also good partnership working and engagement with other major regional museums, including Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, and I know that Sunderland is keen to use the city of culture bid to develop its existing partnerships with other national and international museums. Last week we had an independent review of museums, and that was one of the themes we will be taking up in the Department. Whoever wins will have the opportunity to derive some benefits from that work. The National Glass Centre and the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art receive funding from Arts Council England of nearly £350,000 per year, as well as funding from the city and the University of Sunderland.

The organisation leading the bid is Sunderland Culture, which has been formed by the University of Sunderland, Sunderland City Council and the Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture Trust. Sunderland Culture will become a national portfolio organisation that receives annual funding from the Arts Council from April 2018. Sunderland has also received £3 million from the Creative People and Places programme and £1.25 million from the Great Places Scheme.

Looking forward, it is absolutely clear that there is a clear cultural vision for Sunderland, including for a new music, arts and culture quarter and the restoration of significant heritage sites, such as Hylton castle and Roker pier. Sunderland is home to Europe’s largest free international air show and will next year host the Tall Ships race, which I hope will bring people to the city in huge numbers and be a fantastic boost to the visitor economy. I hope many of those visitors will also experience the Great Exhibition of the North, which will take place at the same time in nearby Newcastle and Gateshead.

It is clear from what we have heard this afternoon that, in common with the other shortlisted areas, Sunderland has the heritage, vision, infrastructure and cultural leadership to be the next city of culture. I conclude by wishing the city of Sunderland the best of luck in its bid. It has been so well supported by all its MPs here today. The good news for them is that they have only a few weeks to wait.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.