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How culture title boosted Liverpool's fortunes

PUBLISHED: 11:19 17 May 2010 | UPDATED: 16:33 01 July 2010

Three Graces seen through an arch in the Dock Wall in Liverpool.

Three Graces seen through an arch in the Dock Wall in Liverpool.

Stacia Briggs

Norwich was among the candidates vying to win European City of Culture in 2008, but the title was won by Liverpool and helped transform the city almost beyond recognition.

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Norwich was among the candidates vying to win European City of Culture in 2008, but the title was won by Liverpool and helped transform the city almost beyond recognition. As our Fine City's bid is finalised for UK City of Culture 2013, University of Liverpool graduate STACIA BRIGGS went back to the city after a 17-year break to see the different the cultural title has made to Merseyside, and what Norwich can look forward to if its bid is successful.

Driving into Liverpool for the first time in 17 years, it's immediately clear that the city I'm about to visit is a completely different to the one I lived in for three years as an under-graduate.

There are tall flags and distinctive blue lighting beckoning drivers towards the city centre, and even in areas of deprivation (two of the four former houses where I used to live have been condemned, not I hope, due to my slovenly student behaviour) it's clear that a huge programme of regeneration is under way.

And then there are the tell-tale signs of huge and significant investment, which have changed the very landscape of Liverpool.

Between 2000 and the end of 2008, Liverpool city centre has benefited from £4 billion of investment in its physical infrastructure, the majority of which is private sector investment, but European, regional and local public funding has also played a significant role.

The expansive waste-ground I used to park on when I visited the famous Albert Docks as a student is now filled with the immense Echo Arena, which attracts top UK and international acts and large conferences, a complex of luxury flats and hotels and is home to the city's answer to the London Eye.

Once slightly tatty and unloved, the waterfront area is regenerated and, like the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza, now qualifies as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasting the largest collection of Grade I listed buildings in the UK, from Pier Head to Stanley Dock.

Almost directly opposite the Docks is Liverpool One, a glittering new £1 billion shopping complex boasting more than 130 stores, a 14-screen cinema, more than 20 restaurants, cafes and bars, 3,000 parking spaces and a beautiful five-acre park.

Most noticeable of all is the sheer number of visitors packing the Liverpool streets, cameras around necks, guidebooks in hand, clutching plastic bags that chart their day out in the city - The Fab 4 Store, Tate Liverpool, designer stores at Liverpool One.

I certainly don't remember seeing such large crowds of tourists when I lived in Liverpool, although the city, with its vast array of museums (mostly with free admission), the Beatles, the waterfront, the Ferry across the Mersey, Aintree, Anfield and Goodison Park has always attracted visitors. Just not this many.

Liverpool's elevation to European City of Culture began in 2001, when cities across the UK were invited to bid for the title. It joined 12 other cities - including Norwich - in the competition and was crowned winner in June 2003.

Quickly, the city arranged to hold themed years up to and including the ECoC year - 2003 was the Year of Learning, 2004 the Year of Faith, 2005 the Year of the Sea, 2006 the Year of Performance, 2007 the Year of Heritage, Liverpool's 800th anniversary and 2008 the European Capital of Culture Year.

Roughly £200 million was spent by the city on ECoC, and the estimated return was an incredible £800 million.

Two years after the European honour was bestowed on the city, it has remained a centre of cultural excellence and continues to be one of the North West's biggest tourist draws: it's a thrilling renaissance for a city that had been battling the legacy of decades of socio-economic decline.

Pam Wilsher is the head of tourism development for The Mersey Partnership, Liverpool's tourism board. She has lived in the area for 30 years, and says the city has been revitalised by regeneration and the ECoC title.

“I remember in the 1970s, Liverpool was a bit rough and ready, going through some tough times, but even then you couldn't fail to be impressed by the potential of the place,” she said.

“There was everything to do, but nobody was doing it. Liverpool had turned its back on its waterfront, the ferry port was like a bus station, the city wasn't setting out its wares very well at all.

“Everything started to change in the early 1980s, when the regeneration of Albert Docks began and people began to realise what the waterfront had to offer. In the early 1990s, the city received significant European funding because Merseyside was recognised as having severe social deprivation.”

From 1994, Merseyside was eligible for Objective 1 funding from the European Commission, the highest level of regional funding available, cash which was spent on helping businesses, regeneration areas, improving the economy and creating new jobs.

By the time the ECoC title was won, many large-scale projects were already in the pipeline, including the new cruise liner terminal, Liverpool One, the Pierhead ferry link and the new Echo arena.

But the award gave the people of Liverpool renewed vigour to complete as many regeneration projects as possible before the city was showcased to the world in 2008.

“The ECoC award gave people a time-frame to work towards. It focussed people's minds and the city pulled out all the stops to have as much as possible ready for 2008,” said Ms Wilsher.

“As often happens, not everything was ready for 2008, and some parts of Liverpool looked a little bit like building sites, but it meant that the impetus carried us into 2009 when more opened in the city, keeping the momentum up. It gave us another bite of the cherry.

“The title also meant that we looked really hard at the way we welcomed people to Liverpool and there was a great deal of training that went on to ensure that the people who would deal with tourists knew about the 'new Liverpool' and all it had to offer.

“Visitor surveys during the ECoC showed that the training had paid off, with 97 per cent of people saying they had been impressed with the welcome they'd received from people in the city.

“More than 3.5 million people came to Liverpool for the first time in 2008 and a lot of them have returned, which is great. They may have come for a one-off event and then decided to return to see more.

“The emphasis on culture and heritage meant that visitors saw the city as a modern, multi-faceted place which had a far greater reach than just football and the Beatles.”

Clare McColagan, director of Culture Liverpool, said the city had never expected to win the bid but that a huge participation and engagement programme had given it the building blocks to create a more cultural environment.

“The participation programme became a really strong element of our year,” she said.

“We set up creative communities, developing community arts and culture projects on their own terms which let us work in a big way with what was already going on in the city rather than relying solely on big exciting things coming in.

“It can be hard to marry what's going on at the big level, huge events that get people out on the street, with what happens at a local level. But what happens on the ground is just as important as the big parties, and really for many people that is what makes a change in their lives.

“What was amazing was how people gripped what we were doing. Young people now have a completely different perception of the city as somewhere that looks outwards.

That deep community programme changed the way thousands of people saw their home city and there's a sense of pride about it now. We also tackled big issues like alcohol awareness along the way, using culture to encourage people to change their habits and their ideas, and the impact is immeasurable.

“It's possible to make big changes if you have the ambition, and it is certainly possible to leave an amazing legacy from something so exciting.”

* Additional reporting by Mary Hamilton.

Economic impact of Liverpool ECoC:

The value of tourism to Liverpool's economy rose by an impressive 25 per cent during 2008, generating a total spend of £617 million, up from £493 million in 2007.

Liverpool City Region's five other districts, Halton, Knowsley, St Helen's, Sefton and Wirral, also experienced a rise in the overall value of tourism activity in their areas.

The total number of visits to the area rose from 63 million to 75 million, with day visitors rising by 20 per cent and the number of visitors staying in hotels up by six per cent.

There was a 50 per cent rise in visitor figures to Merseyside's seven largest attractions since 2004, peaking in 2008.

Around 2.6 million European and global visits were motivated by the Liverpool ECoC in 2008, 97 per cent of which were first-time visits to the city.

Nearly 90 per cent of Liverpool residents agreed the city was a better place than before the ECoC award.

The ECoC generated £2 million of free publicity for Liverpool in 2004 to 2008.

UK City of Culture:

The success of Liverpool's year as ECoC inspired the Government to design its own scheme, the UK City of Culture initiative, which will operate on a four-yearly cycle with the first UK CoC being awarded in 2013.

“What we want from the winning city is a high quality, cultural programme that reaches a wide variety of audiences and that is a fitting follow-on, not only from Liverpool but also the Cultural Olympiad taking place in the run up to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games,” said Michael Elliot, of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Four British cities, Norwich, Sheffield, Derry and Birmingham, have been shortlisted from a long-list of somewhat eclectic candidates including 'the countryside' and the entire county of Cornwall.

Since the shortlist announcement, the candidates have had three months to hone their bids in order to secure the honour, which is predicted to bring investment and tourism, but no direct governmental funding.

Bids are due to be submitted by the end of May, and the winner will be announced in the summer.

The winning city will be able to offer temporary residence to landmark events on the cultural calendar, including the Turner prize, the Brits, the BBC sports personality of the year award and the Stirling architecture prize.

How you can help:

The people behind Norwich's bid to be City of Culture in 2013 say it's vital for everyone in the city to get involved - whether it's by showing your support online, volunteering your time or talents, bringing attention to groups you already work with, or simply by spreading the word about our fine city and all it has to offer.

Here are some ways to get started:

* Send your ideas or volunteer to contribute by emailing cityofculture@norwich.gov.uk.

* Tell us about events, projects or groups you're involved with by calling 01603 772418 or emailing mary.hamilton@archant.co.uk.

* Tell us why you're backing the bid by emailing mary.hamilton@archant.co.uk or calling 01603 772418.

* Show your support and let us know about events happening where you are by joining the Norwich 2013 Facebook group at tinyurl.com/Norwich-2013, the Evening News Back the Bid campaign on Twitter at twitter.com/norwichculture or en24.co.uk/culture.

* You can also get involved at the official website at norwichcityofculture.co.uk.

* Tomorrow: The lasting legacy of the European City of Culture title and what Norwich can look forward to if its UK City of Culture bid is successful.

(ends)

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