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MORAG LINDSAY: UK City of Culture 2025 – Tay Cities, it’s time

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Being a reporter of a certain age means finding new ways to get excited when the same old stories roll around. Gala days, back to school, panto season, culture bids.

So yes there was a sense of deja vu when the latest attempt to bring the UK City of Culture title home was unveiled. You probably felt it too.

As we revealed this morning, our local council areas have joined forces for a collective bid for the accolade in 2025.

It’s not the first time local places have been involved. But it is the first year that entries have been open to groups of them.

Dundee City, Perth and Kinross, Angus and Fife councils are combining their pulling power as the Tay Cities region.

A record 20 bidders have thrown their hats into the ring. They’ll be whittled down to a longlist of contenders who will be awarded £40,000 to develop plans for a year-long programme of cultural activities.

This is a pretty big deal then. Even if it’s not our first time at the rodeo.

And the success of the Tay Cities Deal, which secured £700 million for a host of projects already under way, means there’s reason to be optimistic about our prospects this time.

Hull, which won the title at the time of Dundee’s last culture bid, saw 800 new jobs and more than £600 million poured into the local economy.

There were 5.3 million visits to more than 2,800 events. Three-quarters of visitors said it had changed their perception of the city for the better.

Crucially, nine out of 10 locals also said there had been a positive impact.

Counting up the culture bids

I was working in Aberdeen at the time of the 2017 City of Culture bid process.

We lost out, deservedly at the time, to our upstart neighbour Dundee in the race to represent Scotland.

By 2016, I was working in Dundee when all the talk was of the 2023 European Capital of Culture bid.

Sadly it became another casualty of Brexit the following year. None of the UK contenders were permitted to enter after the referendum result signalled our departure from the EU.

Despite living here I’d actually forgotten about Perth’s failure to make the shortlist for the UK City of Culture 2021.

But the current holder, Coventry, expects to gain £110 million of additional investment and 900 jobs from its year in the sun, despite the pandemic.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport says it’s a “blueprint for how culture can be at the heart of social and economic recovery”.

Liverpool set the standard

That’s a lot of zeros being thrown around.

And that’s why I’m prepared to shake off my culture bid fatigue and look forward to what this might bring.

At the time of the Aberdeen entry I went to Liverpool to see how it had fared as European Capital of Culture in 2008.

It’s probably still the benchmark for what can be achieved when a place throws itself fully into the process.

Sure there were the usual grumbles about how much of the impact was felt in the less well-off areas.

But I remember being swept along by the enthusiasm pouring out of just about everyone from the council leader to the taxi driver pointing out the superlambananas – gaily painted sculptures of half lamb, half banana creatures – on the way back to the airport.

The culture bid is still credited with transforming Liverpool’s economy, confidence and civic pride today.

And those superlambananas have been re-imagined as all manner of fibreglass attractions in towns and cities elsewhere.

You only have to look at the success of the Maggie’s penguin parade, or Oor Wullie bucket trail, to see how much that kind of inclusive culture can enrich a place.

Aberdeen didn’t win in 2017. And it was only when I came to Dundee that I realised how much the oil rich city was poorer culturally.

But I wouldn’t say that’s the case today.

Culture bid can focus minds

I’m sure the culture bid helped focus minds there. And now when I see pals’ children posing next to the amazing Nuart murals, or the lighthouse trail, I see a city that’s come leaps and bounds from the grey streets of my memory.

Dundee hasn’t done too badly out of its culture bid disappointments either.

There’s the V&A obviously but there’s also a thriving creative community who came together to make plans and spun out in all kinds of unexpected directions.

The plans for Eden Project Dundee on the site of the old gasworks and the Esports arena at the waterfront show the sky’s the limit when a city flexes its cultural muscles.

Dundee Eden Project Morecambe
Dundee’s culture could be boosted by the Eden Project.

Even Perth – my sleepy old birthplace – gained a bit of swagger, pressing ahead with revamps for the City Hall and Museum and Art Gallery and putting on events such as the riverside light nights.

The returning Stone of Destiny is one of the attractions being trumpeted in the Tay Cities Region culture bid.

So maybe our turn has come.

Maybe this will be the last of these competitions I report on.

But even if it’s not, it’s a chance to take stock of everything we have here. All the things that lift life above the humdrum. All the things we can achieve if we just have the ambition to go for it.

It’s another reason to be cheerful following the year when culture was cancelled. The year we all realised how much we miss it when it’s not around.

And it’s another reason why – no offence Aberdeen – I’m really very glad to be living where I do.

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