Questions are being asked about whether Chester’s bid to become UK City of Culture 2017 employed a ‘back of a fag packet’ approach following a damning verdict from the judging panel.
The panel, headed by Brookside and Hollyoaks creator Phil Redmond, described the Cheshire West and Chester Council entry as ‘not a strong bid’ and one reliant on the UK CoC ‘being a catalyst to develop a cultural offering from a low base’.
Panel feedback released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed its fear of a ‘significant’ risk the council’s promised new theatre and library complex won’t be ready in time for 2017.
This is due to a £7m funding gap and just £1.2m of new money being committed by the authority.
And while the panel praised the artistic strengths of Chester Mystery Plays , it would appear the bid failed to get across the breadth of community arts groups such as Theatre in the Quarter , Tip Top Productions , Chester Theatre Club and Chester Music Society.
In a scathing line, the panel stated: “It will be difficult to stage UK CoC without a significant amount of importing talent and capacity. The existing collaborations are relatively limited compared to other cities.”
The panel felt the bid ‘lacked evidence of a strong narrative’, was ‘too reliant’ on the role of the theatre, ‘lacked evidence of depth in partnership’ and needed ‘rethinking from the bottom up’.
Even the proposed tourism impacts of achieving CoC status were ‘not desperately clear’, according to the bid panel.
The FOI response shows the bid cost more than £23,000 to stage.
When the bid failed, Labour opposition leader Cllr Justin Madders described the approach as ‘back of a fag packet’ and now believes he has been proved right.
He said: “I am afraid this confirms what many feared; that the bid was rushed and too reliant on future projects such as the theatre. It is typical of the ‘jam tomorrow’ approach this council has to many things; always eager to generate headlines to create the impression things are happening, whereas under the surface there is much to do.”
Council leader Mike Jones previously said the rejection was a ‘huge compliment’ because he felt the panel had decided Chester’s cultural scene was so strong the city did not their help. “That felt like spin at the time and now we know for sure it was, “ added Cllr Madders.
Matt Baker, artistic director of Theatre in the Quarter, also wonders if the quality of the bid let the city down.
He said: “Chester has an impressive record of grass roots level cultural activity which was perhaps was undersold in the bid.
“Thanks to several organisations, both professional and community, there has been a tremendous growth in opportunity for engagement in high quality arts for all ages, abilities and backgrounds; theatre, youth theatre, choirs, bands, music groups, film making, dance, visual arts and literature. Theatre in the Quarter alone engaged over 3,500 people from all walks of life in projects last year, and we are certainly not the only organisation who have nurtured the wealth of talent this city has to offer.
“The judging panel suggested we had overplayed the emphasis on the new theatre. It's certainly a beacon for us to aspire to and build towards; a centre which should act as the mothership for all the arts organisations and festivals and promote a further increase in the exciting cultural offer for our city.”
It has also emerged that even consultants Blue Sail Consultancy, who advised on the bid at a cost of £11,550, were unconvinced. In a report commissioned by Lancaster City Council in 2011 the firm described Chester’s performing arts and museums offer as ‘quite weak’.
Councillor Stuart Parker
Cheshire West and Chester Council hopes to learn from some of the panel’s observations but utterly rejects its belief there is a risk the theatre will not be delivered on time in 2016.
And Cllr Stuart Parker, executive member culture and economy, takes exception to the panel’s view the city has a ‘limited track record in developing and delivering cultural programmes’.
The Tory leadership of council has made delivering the theatre a key political commitment which it hopes will keep them in power in 2015.
Cllr Parker said: “When questioned by the assessors on this issue, both by letter and interview, we made it patently clear that the theatre would be built despite any funding shortfalls that existed at the time of the bid.”
He added: “We are extremely disappointed that this issue seems to have played a significant part in the decision making progress when it was made quite clear to the assessors that the theatre was a given.”
Cllr Parker continued: “Successful or not, the City of Culture bid galvanised our culture and arts organisations in a way which has never happened before, giving a clear indication of everyone’s determination to make Chester a national cultural destination.”
“Certainly, we do not accept that the city has a ‘limited track record in developing and delivering cultural programmes’.
“Year on year we are adding to our cultural offer with the Mystery Plays, Theatre in the Park, Literary, Music and Giants Festivals all attracting national and even international interest.
“Our bid was strong, honest, aspirational and perfectly clear about the economic benefits that the City of Culture title would bring to Chester and the borough.”
Despite being the early bookmaker’s favourite, Chester’s bid failed to make the four-strong shortlist of Swansea, Hull, Leicester and Dundee, despite backing from celebrities including Bond star Sir Roger Moore and Cestrian footballer Danny Murphy.
Councillor Parker stressed the bid had put Chester on the map more than any other event since the Olympic celebrations.
During two weeks of the bid, the city had been featured on national and regional television eight times and with countless radio interviews with stations across the country.