What is a UK City of Culture?

Blog 16 May

My home town, Coventry, is the UK City of Culture for 2021. The opening celebrations were postponed from January because of the pandemic, but this weekend marks the official start, with events now extending into May 2022.  

Having a UK City of Culture feels like a concept that has been around for ever. In fact it is quite new. In January 2009, it was announced that the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, was considering establishing a British City of Culture prize and that the winning city might possibly host events of national importance as well as boosting the local economy and Arts scene A working group was established in March. It reported in June 2009, suggesting that the designation be given to a city in the UK once every four years, starting in 2013.

In July 2009, following the report of the working group, Ben Bradshaw, Burnham’s successor as Culture Secretary announced a competition to select the first UK City of Culture. The deadline for initial bids was 11 December 2009, with shortlisted cities having until 28 May 2010 to make their final bids. A total of 14 cities applied, and four – Birmingham, Derry, Norwich and Sheffield were shortlisted. The winning city, Derry, was announced in July 2010. The festival was spearheaded by the Culture Company 2013 and they re-branded the city as Derry-Londonderry.

After 2013, the next UK City of Culture was scheduled for 2017. In June 2013 a shortlist of four bids – Dundee, Hull, Leicester and Swansea was announced. Hull was proclaimed the winner in November 2013, because of its “compelling case, based on its theme as ‘a city coming out of the shadows’”. On 1 January 2017, the Hull event opened with a firework display and a series of sound and light installations collectively known as Made in Hull, which reportedly attracted more than 25,000 visitors.  Subsequently, the BBC reported that a report by Hull University in March 2018 found Hull’s status as the UK City of Culture attracted more than five million people, £220 million of investment and 800 new jobs.

In 2017, a shortlist of cities bidding to become the UK city of culture for 2021 was drawn up – Swansea, Paisley, Stoke-on-Trent, Coventry and Sunderland. Coventry was the eventual winner, with the arts minister at the time, John Glen, stating that it was “an incredible opportunity for Coventry to boost investment in the local economy, grow tourism and put arts and culture centre stage.”

Being the UK City of Culture is not without its troubles, with many of the local people who have sound credentials in the Arts world, feeling they have been pushed to one side by external ‘experts’ with a particular agenda. But, if the year goes for Coventry as it appears to have been for Hull, we can look forward to quite a ride!

By happy coincidence the country is coming out of Covid lock down restrictions from this weekend and people should be able to come and stay in Coventry to enjoy the events taking place. But many events will also be on-line. Check out the website for details:


And of course, without leaving your sofa, you can read the anthology, Telling Tales, by the Coventry Writers’ Group which has just been published. As well as poems and stories, it includes my article on actors, playwrights and directors associated with the city during the last 1,000 years.

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