UK City of Culture is a success but what does “success” mean? Greater transparency is needed

What is UK City of Culture delivering for Londonderry and Derry for the rest of us?  My fitful browsing and searches in journalism and the written public record doesn’t tell us much. No doubt there’s a buzz about the place with the opening of Ebrington Square and the Peace Bridge. You only need the evidence of your own eyes to see that tourism has become a major  – the major? – source of investment. They are squeezing every last ounce of value out of the remote and the recent pasts. Purists eat your heart out and celebrate Nessie’s visit with the Return of Colmcille. If proof were needed, the Radio 1 Big Weekend showed that Derry kids are (phew!) like kids everywhere. Insurgency thank God has not entered the genes. Amazingly, droves of foreigners – how many they don’t yet know  –  are attracted by holidays with a hint of an edge and a break from all that hot weather they have to put up with at home.

But if an analysis has been done it’s being kept well hidden. “The Lonely Planet named Derry-Londonderry the fourth best place to visit in the world in 2013.” Amazing and gratifying if true but why are hard figures so apparently hard to get? I did find this quite touching puff in the website of the Washington embassy from a young staffer with Derry connections but you could hardly call it information.

Follow up marketing strategies can’t depend on hype and optimism alone and the public are entitled to real information. I was also looking for information about the development programme that the Year is showcasing, called the One Plan. At last I found a report on both in the record of the Assembly.

Sharon O’Connor Derry City Council’s chief executive followed by  Shona McCarthy the CE of the Culture company gave very upbeat assessments to the Assembly’s Social Development Committee a couple of weeks ago – ignored as far as I can make out, in the texts of  the traditional media.

The Londonderry Chamber of Commerce has told us that about 39 new businesses have started.  We reckon that about £120 million worth of capital investment has accrued from the City of Culture project, and the psychological boost to the city and the region is, I think, beyond price.  It has been really exceptional.  So, you find a city transformed by the project.

The evidence from other capitals and cities of culture is that the economic benefits do not accrue during the year but in successive years.  So, you are building for the future and making an investment for tomorrow.

Shona McCarthy chief executive of the culture company spoke about the social development connected to the Year.

We have been working with neighbourhood renewal partnerships across the city and, through partnership with them, have managed to distribute some £300,000 to community projects.  We are also working with the Rural Area Partnership in Derry (RAPID) so that we are also covering the rural areas.

The Portrait of a City project is, I think, a very exciting and new model for targeting social need in the city.  It is probably the most ambitious and biggest community participation project in an effort to create a collective audio visual heritage that has ever been attempted in one place.

We have worked with the Big Lottery Fund, which has given out some 50 grants to different community groups.  The Big Lottery programme has been open to organisations across Northern Ireland but is tied into the themes of the City of Culture.  There is some £1·53 million in that Big Lottery funding.

The Music Promise is probably one of our biggest success stories… We have worked with Link Music, the neighbourhood partnerships and the Nerve Centre, and that project is now reaching 450 young people a week.  Last week, we saw a performance from a young band comprising young people who, until six weeks ago, had never lifted a musical instrument but were able to stand up in public and perform.

Through the funding for the community projects and ideas that we deliver through the What’s the Big Idea? programme, we have managed to give out over £600,000 for community-based initiatives for community organisations to deliver their own bespoke City of Culture projects.

I am relieved, I suppose, to be at the point where we are already at over 60% of our targets on ticket sales, still only five months into the year.  So, the signs are positive.  I am not saying that everything is rosy, but we know that the programme will now be delivered and that there is no threat whatsoever to the delivery of the full programme and the full benefits for the city and the region.

The Chairperson: So, the £598,000 programming shortfall at the end of April is now covered in its entirety by the council?

Ms O’Connor: A council underwrite is in place, and, as Shona said, the Culture Company is continuing to raise funds.  It is a steady situation, because the programme is copper-fastened and will happen.

“Unforeseen costs” for the first ever Fleadh Cheoil north of the border to be held in August  include  the cost of extra security  and an accident and emergency unit in the centre of the city, estimated at about half a million. This will come apparently from a DCal reserve

Added Ms O’Connor: Various numbers are quoted for the output, but it is certainly in the many tens of thousands — upwards of €30 million in revenues is derived from the hosting of the all-Ireland fleadh.  In that context, something less than £500,000 is a good investment to accrue that sort of commercial benefit for the city as a whole.

Much of the Year has been about Derry looking at itself, to the fascination of its people and outsiders. The only recent assessment I can find is by the Guardian’s Owen Hatherley an outsider looking in perhaps for the first time at what the Derry experience has meant to local and foreign artists.

The Assembly committee members reflected some grumbling about  a lack of “ inclusivity” i.e. that unionism was being downgraded  or sidelined.  The Maiden City Festival   was not in the brochure (although linked to it in its website). A apologies for “ omission rather than commission” were offered and accepted.

Dave O’Brien a cultural studies academic in City University offered this view in advance of the Year.

The experience for Derry may, in actual fact, be to discover success comes in forms that are hard to capture through metrics like tourist spending, visitor numbers or media column inches and also moves beyond the aesthetic experiences associated with cultural consumption…

The benefit to Derry may well be found in the partnerships created and the cooperation engendered, rather than just the figures for visitor numbers and tourist spend, or indeed the cultural experiences that will certainly bring to life the sense of wonder and joy the 2013 programme aims to create.

That indeed would be a welcome return on the investment and out of sight better than spending on high security. All the same it would nice to know what’s happening with that £130 million.


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