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Small cities can offer just as much culture as larger ones

Small cities can offer just as much culture as larger ones

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The race to be crowned the UK City of Culture for 2021 has begun. Perth, Coventry, Paisley, Swansea and Stoke-on-Trent are among those to have registered their interest so far, with final bids due by the end of April, and a shortlist to be revealed in July.

The aim of the City of Culture programme is “to use arts and culture as a catalyst for a city’s economic and social regeneration”, and of course to raise the profile of the city’s creative reputation across the country.

Though you might expect it to be only big cities putting themselves forward as contenders, that is not the case. One of the more unusual bids for the 2021 title has come from the UK’s smallest city, St Davids, located on the Pembrokeshire coast in south Wales. With just 1,800 residents, St Davids is the country’s smallest city by a fair margin. It has just over half the residents of its compatriot St Asaph (3,491), and a fraction of the City of London’s residents (7,185).

Though it can bring huge benefits from investment, tourism and legacy events, taking on the City of Culture moniker is no easy task. Current title-holder Hull has 365 days of creative, artistic, scientific and athletic events planned for 2017.

Hull has a lot to offer for 2017 … but is it too much? Myton Photographic/Shutterstock

Crucially, however, central government provides no additional cash to deliver a City of Culture programme. Hull will have to raise £32m from more than 60 different organisations and companies, in the hope that the year will reinvigorate the nation’s interest in the artistic heritage of the sometimes derided city.

Returning to St Davids, the entire county of Pembrokeshire has a population of only 120,000, less than half that of Hull’s 256,406. Comparing the two, it looks like the small city will need to punch far above its weight to secure the bid. Indeed, Pembrokeshire Council officers have already confirmed that they would seek to incorporate other parts of the county within their application – which begs the question, just how much can small cities offer in terms of culture anyway?

Small city, big culture

Culture and creativity are often regarded as essentially urban phenomena, but this isn’t always the case. Pembrokeshire, for example, has a burgeoning scene of writers and visual artists upon which to build, many of them inspired by the area’s great natural amenities.

Research has shown that peripheral places tend to have a harder time translating their creative resources into economic outcomes than their larger counterparts do. But being small can have other benefits. Community culture is often stronger than in big cities, the impact of a single visionary character can be greater, and a lack of high profile off-the-shelf events and celebrity advocates focuses attention on genuine strengths and how they might be built upon.

Just look at Hay-on-Wye: a few decades ago, who would have predicted that a small market town on the Welsh border with England could be become internationally known as the “Town of Books”, and home of one of the world’s foremost literary festivals, attracting over 250,000 visitors annually?

Hay-on-Wye’s annual book festival has become a global hit. Wikimedia

Heritage building

Unlike some larger cities, St Davids has the opportunity to draw upon a wealth of Welsh culture to boost its bid. The 2013 City of Culture, Derry, hosted the Irish music festival, the all-Ireland Fleadh, as part of its programme of events. It could be that St Davids follows suit and hosts Wales’s annual national festival, the National Eisteddfod, during its cultural year.

Indeed, emphasising its Welsh heritage could see St Davids succeed where previously shortlisted Welsh city, Swansea, failed for 2017. Despite the backing of high profile names from the area – including actors Michael Sheen, Catherine Zeta Jones and Sir Anthony Hopkins – the bid lost out to Hull.

The awarding of City of Culture status to St Davids would be a refreshing signal that perhaps the economic bottom line – and the associated impact of economic and social regeneration – is not necessarily the be all and end all as far as cultural investments in the UK are concerned. Not least as evidence of these harder outcomes (jobs created, for example) is typically limited relative to the softer or less tangible consequences, like improved confidence or enhanced reputation. This would, however, require a significant departure from the established cultural policy-making doctrine of recent years, which has very much been driven by an economic agenda.

Sadly, though there is a lot to be said for the small Welsh city being the next title-holder, the bookies don’t seem to have faith in St Davids’ chances for the title. It is currently ranked at 8 to 1 to be the successful bidder, behind the likes of Paisley (7/1), Coventry (5/2) and current favourites Perth (2/1). And as is often noted, the bookies are rarely wrong