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Coventry City of Culture Trust

Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 14 June 2023

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

The collapse earlier this year of Coventry City of Culture Trust, the arm’s length body tasked with continuing the legacy of our city’s time in the national spotlight, shocked and infuriated many. Millions of pounds of public money may never be recovered and the plans for an ongoing legacy are having to be rewritten from scratch.

That is not to say that the city of culture celebrations themselves were a mistake. The year-long pageant of art, music, drama and poetry enthused our community and drew visitors from all over Britain. I am proud to represent a city whose heritage and present are both alive with vibrancy and humanity. Coventry was a perfect choice for city of culture, and the celebrations went a long way to restore our spirits as life finally reopened after the pandemic.

That said, lessons must be learned. Future cities of culture, including Bradford in 2025, should not have to face the financial and reputational losses. Throughout the process, local communities were left without a voice. It is deeply worrying that a vast amount of local talent, advice and involvement was simply ignored, leaving many of my constituents with an uneasy feeling of alienation from an initiative that should have been rooted in the community. Communication was poor. My constituents were not even informed what events were taking place on which dates until after the fact. It is very clear that something went deeply wrong with the management of an organisation that time and again rebuffed and ignored local knowledge and offers for help, thinking instead that it knew better and bringing in so-called experts who knew nothing about our city.

I believe in the city of culture programme and want it to succeed in the future, but unless the lessons from Coventry’s experience are heeded, I fear that those issues will keep recurring, starting with Bradford in 2025. Better central Government oversight is essential in order to avoid the shameful failures of governance that allowed the trust to implode so quickly. People in my community were beyond appalled to see big players walk away from the trust with honours galore, despite leaving in their wake a dismal record of failure and broken promises. How on earth can it be justified that Martin Sutherland, the former trust chief executive officer, was granted an OBE for his work leading the organisation?

The sums involved are staggering. West Midlands police alone are owed half a million pounds. The arts organisation Assembly Festival is £1.5 million out of pocket. Coventry City Council, after receiving guarantees from the trust’s then CEO that it could meet its obligations, may now have to write off £1.6 million of public money. The Albany Theatre Trust, a local charity of which I am a trustee, is named in the administrators’ report as being owed £34,000. Like so many other Coventry-based creative bodies, it was initially prevented from participating, only for the trust management to do a complete 180° turn when the lack of any real links to the community became glaringly obvious. In total, administrators have revealed that the city of culture trust will leave a black hole of more than £4 million in its wake. Coventry was promised a programme to enlighten, educate and entertain our city. What we received was a leadership without any interest in local people, and incompetent money management, with dire consequences. I have been calling for an investigation since the bankruptcy was announced, so I welcome the ongoing review by the National Audit Office, which I hope will be a step on the way to understanding what went so badly wrong behind the scenes.

Oversight is key. Although local authorities bid for city of culture status, the award is made by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport here in Westminster. The programme is then drawn up and implemented by arm’s length bodies, controlled by neither local government nor national Government directly. That approach proved fatal for Coventry City of Culture Trust. Those responsible for creating the disaster have been free to hide the truth from the press and public throughout. Only the administrators appear to have ever been given the full picture of the organisation’s financial situation, but by the time they were compiling their report, it was too late to salvage much from the wreckage.

As sorry as this tale of mismanagement and financial loss has been, I do not wish to discourage future applicants from bidding for city of culture status. The benefits of a cultural festival extend far beyond the celebrations and performances themselves, but it is clear that deep-rooted reform is a must. Whole areas of arts and heritage are made accessible for the first time to untapped audiences, from every possible background and walk of life. The research and creative projects inspired by a city of culture should keep giving back for decades. Our duty is to ensure that the serious flaws revealed in the last festival’s governance do not hang over the city of culture programmes to come and to ensure that the legacy of Coventry’s year is secured.

Coventry What’s Next, a grassroots organisation made up of various stakeholder organisations, including Coventry cathedral, Coventry City Council, Talking Birds and the Albany Theatre, hopes to secure the funding that was previously promised to the trust, by rebidding for the money that was already set aside for the legacy programme. Will the Government share the contents of the original bid with those stakeholders and ensure that money is automatically transferred to those organisations, so that the legacy project can continue?

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport must keep a much closer eye on the finances of any arm’s length body tasked with implementing city of culture programmes. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure this level of financial mismanagement will not occur again? Will the Minister commit to including an independent representative of the Secretary of State as a voting member of the governing body heading any such bodies in the future? Or will he look at ensuring that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is able to audit the leadership and delivery of organising bodies on an annual basis?

Finally, will the Government commit to holding a full investigation into how this maladministration and bankruptcy has been allowed to occur, so that lessons can be learned for the future management of the city of culture programme?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for securing this important debate on Government support for Coventry City of Culture Trust, on behalf of her constituents.

I start by offering my sincere regret that Coventry City of Culture Trust had to enter administration, with local job losses and wider negative implications for those businesses that work closely with the trust. It is never easy for those who are affected by such events. My thoughts are with those who are struggling as a consequence of those events, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue.

Before I turn to discuss the particular circumstances surrounding the Coventry City of Culture Trust, I would like to take a moment to set out how the Government view the UK city of culture competition and its positive impacts, because it is important that we remember those, as the hon. Lady did in her speech.

DCMS established the UK city of culture competition in 2009, following Liverpool’s immensely successful term as European capital of culture in 2008. The competition is a proven model for place-specific, culture-led regeneration. Derry/Londonderry, the first winner of the UK city of culture competition, received £160 million in capital investment associated with the title. That funding secured major improvements to the public realm along the River Foyle, forming part of Derry/Londonderry’s regeneration legacy. Hull, which was the city of culture in 2017, received £15 million of direct Government funding, which in turn attracted more than £600 million of public and private investment, with nine out of 10 Hull residents saying that they thought the programme had had a positive impact on the city.

As UK city of culture in 2021, Coventry enjoyed huge successes. It secured more than £170 million of investment, facilitating regeneration across the city valued at over £500 million. The Government invested more than £18 million to support Coventry directly in that year. Over £8 million of that funding supported the redevelopment of key cultural assets such as the Daimler Powerhouse, which saw the major transformation of one of the first car factories built in Britain into a £2.5 million creative hub. The Belgrade Theatre has seen a refurbishment of the main stage, auditorium and foyer, while Drapers’ Hall, a music hall that was closed for 30 years, has now opened its doors to the public thanks to city of culture funding.

We should not lose sight of Coventry’s excellent cultural programme. For instance, it has hosted the Turner prize, grassroots festivals, concerts such as Radio 1’s Big Weekend, and a spectacular drone light show watched by thousands. Cultural activity took place in every ward, and just under two thirds of the programme was co-created with local residents. The model of co-creation promoted the bottom-up, hyper-local production of events within communities, but I do note the points that the hon. Lady raised in her speech.

When it comes to events organised by the city of culture trust, does the Minister recognise the importance of giving local organisations the support that will enable them to create programmes that are tailored to local people, and does he recognise that when that does not happen, many of those people are left feeling disengaged and undervalued?

Absolutely. That is an important point. I was pleased to be able to go to Bradford not long ago, and it was great to see how much it was engaging young people in particular in the creation of projects.

We should also remember that Coventry’s programme had to be reimagined to comply with covid restrictions at short notice. Sadly, the pandemic, the energy crisis and cost of living issues have all played a part in the challenges faced by the trust and contributed to its eventual administration. The circumstances in which Coventry had to stage its year as city of culture were therefore unprecedented. Indeed, the administrator’s report states that covid had an adverse impact on the business’s finances.

Nevertheless, following the trust’s administration, I do not dispute that there are lessons to be learned by all parties, and, as the hon. Lady knows, wider work is being undertaken to understand the circumstances in which it entered administration. As she said, the National Audit Office has elected to conduct a review of the trust, which is focused in scope and is examining the issues of central Government funding and oversight of the trust. The report is due to be published in the summer, and I can give the hon. Lady a commitment that we will consider it and apply the lessons learned from it to the future of the programme. We continue to engage with the NAO as it proceeds with the review. The Charity Commission has opened a regulatory concern case examining the governance of the trust, and we will continue to look at that as well.

I can give a personal commitment that the Department and I are keen to learn our own lessons from the past. The Department has already co-hosted a discussion with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Warwick Business School to consider how best to ensure effective legacy delivery for the UK city of culture programme. I was pleased to attend that event, and it was good to have representatives from cities that had hosted it in the past and those hosting it in the future, so that we could all share our experiences. We are actively working with Bradford Culture Company, Bradford Council and Arts Council England to ensure that robust governance and accountability for Bradford 2025, as well as—crucially—a sustainable legacy programme, are all there in the planning.

Accountability is key, and in the situation of Coventry City of Culture Trust, there has been no accountability. What steps will the Minister be taking to reassure my constituents that those who mismanaged the trust will be held accountable?

As I said a moment ago, we are awaiting the report from the National Audit Office. I think that it will be doing the sort of detailed work that the hon. Lady talks about. I assure her that as soon as we get that report, if there are any lessons to be learned in terms of oversight, we will look at them carefully. It is important that we learn those lessons, because I do not want us to damage this excellent programme. People need to have great confidence in it, and we will also need to apply those lessons to the launch of the 2029 competition.

We know that the UK city of culture designation is transformative. It drives economic growth and regeneration, and it promotes lots of social benefits and gives a real pride in place. Winners such as Coventry have seen significant regeneration to much of the public realm and cultural assets, and we are keen that Bradfordians can enjoy change of a similar scale in their city too. We know that Bradford’s enthusiasm for and commitment to the programme is clear from its excellent bid and planning, and I have confidence that it will be able to deliver a successful year and, most importantly, to secure a continuing legacy. That really is critical. We will continue to work closely with Bradford to ensure that it meets its stated goals, and we will certainly learn all the lessons that we have experienced from Coventry. We will also work closely with the city, as I know it is currently considering what that legacy programme will look like.

I know from speaking to many of the local arts organisations in Coventry that they are concerned about what is going to happen to the money allocated to the legacy trust. For many, their key concern is that they will have to rebid for that money. Many of the smaller organisations do not have expert bidders to draw up those bids, so what commitment can the Minister give that that money will still be accessible to local organisations that do not have the funding for a bid person?

I know that officials in the Department are in regular discussions with Coventry City Council, and I understand that they are working with many of those local organisations on building up the legacy programme. We are looking forward to receiving the proposal from Coventry City Council and as soon as we get it, we will of course consider what help and support the Government can give.

My door remains open and I would be keen to continue this engagement with the hon. Member so that she can highlight some of these specific points. She is clearly representing her constituents extremely well here today, and I would be happy to do that. We need to learn lessons from this. It is a great programme that brings about many benefits, lots investment and lots of regeneration. When it is done well, it really engages the local community, but it is important that as we go through this, we learn the lessons. We look forward to seeing what the NAO report says and we will learn from that. In the meantime, I am happy to meet the hon. Member and representatives of Coventry City Council to explore what more could be done, and I thank her very much for raising this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.