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FEATURES - CULTURAL RUNNERS

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Becoming European capital of culture attracts massive investment and new jobs. The race for 2008 has begun, says Ni...
Becoming European capital of culture attracts massive investment and new jobs. The race for 2008 has begun, says Nick Triggle

Twelve packages landed on the desk of culture secretary Tessa Jowell at the end of March. Inside were applications to become the European capital of culture in 2008, when it is Britain's turn to take centre stage again.

This is not just a chance for the winning city to put on a year-long festival of arts and cultural celebrations - the stakes are much higher than that. For the city that wins, it opens the door to untold riches and opportunity.

Glasgow held the title in 1990 - the last, and only, British city to have done so. It created nearly 6,000 jobs, attracted£80m of investment and increased tourist visits by 80%. Of course, it also affected culture - there was a 40% jump in attendances at theatres, museums and galleries - but the lasting legacy was one of sustained development for the Scottish city.

An independent report, published in December 1991, revealed: 'Glasgow's year of culture was conceived as both a celebration of achievement and an exercise in development. More than most British cities, Glasgow has used the arts to strengthen and communicate its regeneration.'

These achievements have not been lost on 2008's applicants, made up mostly of partnerships between councils and local arts bodies and communities. Birmingham City Council estimates that winning the race will lead to£100m of investment in the local economy, creating 10,000 jobs in the process. The Newcastle/Gateshead initiative, which is calling its bid 'Beyond imagination', believes the title will bring£700m extra income and 17,000 jobs.

Mike Barton, a spokesman for the Birmingham bid, said: 'Becoming the capital of culture will have a huge impact. We would expect to see something very similar happening to what happened in Glasgow during and after 1990.'

This year's title-holder, Salamanca, in northern Spain, is no exception. It has already seen an increase in tourists to its university, one of the oldest in Europe.

Even the Department of Culture, Media & Sport acknowledges the advantages that being the European capital of culture can bring. It has told prospective applicants: 'The bid should demonstrate the potential to achieve long-lasting benefits for the local community and for the wider European community.'

This is all a long way from the original concept when Greek culture minister Melina Mercouri first thought of the idea in 1983 to bring European citizens closer together by inviting them to share their cultural experiences.

The change is reflected by the vast sums spent on preparing the bids. Cardiff is thought to be the biggest spender, with a£1m bid jointly funded by the council and the Welsh Assembly. The others range from under£100,000 to nearly£1m.

No-one wants to be seen to criticise their own bid and the amounts of money spent, but one thing is certain: there will be 11 losers. However, that does not necessarily mean the outlay will have been for nothing.

A spokeswoman for the Cardiff bid said: 'Even if we lose, some of the projects will still be carried forward and the overall profile of the city will have been raised. So it is not wasted money.'

Along with the varying degrees of cash being spent, each bid is pushing different aspects of culture. Oxford, known throughout the world for its university, and Canterbury, with its links to Chaucer and religion, both highlight their histories. Bradford, whose application, in the words of campaign director Paul Brookes, is 'surprising', makes reference to its diverse racial mix.

Bradford's bid, 'One landscape, many views', emphasises the 'strength of Bradford's culturally diverse population and the growing connections across and between different cultural traditions'.

As with any race, there are favourites. Bookmakers have placed the shortest odds on Cardiff, Belfast and Newcastle/Gateshead, which boasts a host of government ministers as local constituency MPs, including the prime minister.

But there is still a long way to go before one of the contenders can join the elite group of past winners, which includes Paris and Venice.

There is every opportunity for one of the other bidders to make a late run. And who knows, with Gareth Gates-mania sweeping the country and the Pop Idol giving his support to his home town, Bradford, an underdog could well triumph in the end. Even if he is reportedly moving to London.

The 12 Bidders

Belfast

Birmingham

Bradford

Brighton

Bristol

Canterbury

Cardiff

Inverness

Liverpool

Newcastle/Gateshead

Norwich

Oxford

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