Nigel Huddleston – 2022 Speech on Wrexham’s Bid to be 2025 City of Culture

The speech made by Nigel Huddleston, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Commons on 16 May 2022.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for securing the debate. She rightly champions Wrexham, as she always does. She is justly proud that the county borough was the only place in Wales to be shortlisted in the fierce competition for the highly coveted UK city of culture title. Previously held by Derry-Londonderry and Hull and currently held by Coventry, it is a growing prize and a record 20 places applied this year.

This is the final debate secured for the four shortlisted places bidding for the 2025 title, and I will briefly reflect on the passion with which all hon. Members spoke about their constituencies. They highlighted the incredible heritage and cultural assets of which people across the whole United Kingdom are proud. They spoke of the dedication of their bidding teams, the ambition for positive change and the sheer number of partners who have come together to support their bids.

While this is a competition, it is worth acknowledging the transformative power of culture in all places, not just the winners. That is why the UK city of culture programme is a key part of the efforts by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to level up opportunity across the UK. It is a proven model for harnessing culture and creativity to attract investment and tourism, to bring people together and to drive economic growth, positive social change and regeneration. The title is unique in its holistic nature. It galvanises partners across sectors to ensure systematic change, promote social cohesion and wellbeing, and create a shared vision with multiple outcomes. The competition was inspired by the success of Liverpool when it was the European capital of culture in 2008, and it was designed and is delivered by DCMS in collaboration with the devolved Administrations. The Government have recently announced that the competition will be a permanent quadrennial competition, continuing in 2029 and beyond, and I am delighted that some of the unsuccessful bidders in the current competition have already declared their intention to bid again for the 2029 title.

My noble Friend Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, the Minister for Arts, recently visited all the shortlisted places, including Wrexham, and has been hugely impressed with the effort and ambition of the bidding teams and partners. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham mentioned, I had the honour of visiting Wrexham myself not so long ago and had the opportunity to visit so many of the local cultural establishments and sites that she mentioned.

The impact of the title is evident in the benefits felt by previous winners. There was more than £150 million of public and private sector investment in the 2013 winner, Derry/Londonderry, and the 2017 winner, Hull, saw 5.3 million people visiting more than 2,800 events. Coventry, despite the huge challenges posed by the pandemic, has developed an extraordinary programme of events that has put culture at the heart of the social and economic recovery. Co-created projects have taken place in all 18 wards of the city, with thousands of community dancers, musicians, poets and makers participating. The city has seen more than £172 million invested in the likes of music concerts, public art displays, the new Telegraph hotel, a new children’s play area in the city centre and improvements to public transport. Coventry’s year will culminate in Radio 1’s Big Weekend at the end of May.

It is no wonder, therefore, that there were more initial applications for the 2025 title than ever before. Wrexham county borough, along with the three other locations—Bradford, County Durham and Southampton—was approved by the Secretary of State to make the shortlist for 2025. All the bids have been scrutinised by the expert advisory panel chaired by Sir Phil Redmond, which will continue to assess the finalists against criteria such as place making, levelling up, UK and international co-operation, opening up access to culture and creating a lasting legacy. The panel has now visited the locations on the shortlist and will make its final recommendation to DCMS Ministers following a presentation from each place this week. The winner will be announced in Coventry later this month.

As my hon. Friend said so eloquently, Wrexham county is a proud and passionate region with substantial cultural assets. For one, it boasts a UNESCO world heritage site, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct—I hope I pronounced that right, or was close—which is the tallest aqueduct in the world. The colour splash on the bid team logo represents coal dust, as a tribute to Wrexham’s industrial past, and the colours represent the vibrancy and diversity of everyone who lives, works and plays in Wrexham.

Wrexham is world-renowned for its textiles, bricks, beer, mining and much else. Of course it is also home to the world’s third oldest professional football team, AFC Wrexham, and the club’s recent takeover has attracted immense international interest and support. Unfortunately, I last visited Wrexham just before the acquisition of the football club by Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, and I therefore also missed out on the opportunity to visit the emerging major tourist attraction that is the urinal in the gents’ toilets that was a gift from Ryan Reynolds to Rob on his birthday. I am confident that this major cultural attraction will form the centrepiece of the 2025 city of culture bid, or maybe not—I was given that opportunity to talk about urinals in the Chamber of the House of Commons, so I took it.

Wrexham is a place of myth and legend. It is a place filled with music and home-grown talent, and FOCUS Wales—one of the UK’s leading music showcase festivals—welcomes more than 15,000 international artists, industry leaders and music fans from across the world to the county every year.

Wrexham’s UK city of culture bid is led by the county council, alongside partners from local businesses to National Trust Wales and Transport for Wales. Wrexham’s vision for 2025 includes celebrating the region’s cultural diversity and becoming the UK capital of play. I am told that, on the panel’s visit to Wrexham, the chair, Sir Phil Redmond, was even persuaded by young people to take a turn on a zipwire.

The bid also aims to establish Wrexham as the home of football in Wales, as the north Wales centre for trade and events and as a leader in innovation, and to promote the Welsh language and heritage. Wrexham’s bid celebrates local and national heritage. As part of the bid process, the borough council awarded over 50 grants of up to £1,000 to individuals and organisations to host a multitude of events and projects to promote the county. Planned activities include the recreation of the historic Wrexham tailor’s quilt; a powerchair football event to highlight Wrexham’s inclusive environment for disability sports; and a special fusion event with African and Welsh food, fashion and music.

As outlined on their website, the team also aim to establish a “permanent, long-lasting legacy” of socio-economic benefits beyond their 2025 year, improving health and wellbeing and educational outcomes. As the only Welsh region in the competition, the team anticipate that, should their bid be successful, it would have a positive impact on neighbouring regions, such as Denbighshire, Flintshire and Powys, and more broadly across Wales. In Wrexham itself, regeneration—of infra-structure and disused public spaces—is a priority.

As the competition goes from strength to strength, for the first time, each of the eight longlisted places from across the UK received a £40,000 grant to support their application ahead of the shortlisting stage. This was intended to level the playing field, reduce the burden on bidders and help them develop scalable plans. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all bidding places for participating in the competition.

As I alluded to earlier, there are clear benefits to all places that bid, as was evident from the recent visits to the shortlisted places. The bidding process engages and galvanises a wide range of local communities and organisations, resulting in enduring partnerships and pride in place. The process encourages places to develop a vision and to come together around ambitions for change. It also attracts media attention, putting places on the map.

For example, Hull was unsuccessful in winning the 2013 title but came back to win the 2017 title. Sunderland, which bid for the 2021 title, created the momentum to form a new arts trust, Sunderland Culture, which achieved enhanced Arts Council England funding and mobilised a lasting team of community volunteers. Paisley, which also bid for the 2021 title, has since raised funds for its museum and hosted a range of major events, including UNBOXED’s About Us. Norwich, which bid for the 2013 title, went on to become UNESCO’s city of literature.

DCMS wants all bidders to benefit from the bidding process. We are committed to working with those who do not win to continue to develop partnerships, advance culture-led change and strengthen cultural strategies, as well as to signpost upcoming opportunities and funding.

In conclusion, I commend Wrexham’s commitment to winning the UK city of culture 2025 competition, and I applaud my hon. Friend’s continuing championing of Wrexham. I wish all shortlisted bidders good luck in the final stage of the competition.

Question put and agreed to.