Town of Culture Award

Jim Shannon Excerpts
Wednesday 23rd January 2019

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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23 Jan 2019, 5:14 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing this important debate, about which I am very keen—so keen, in fact, that my recent column in the Slough Express was entirely devoted to a town of culture award.

Slough is on the up: we have moved on from John Betjeman’s poem. We want no friendly bombs, there is grass for cows to graze, we do not just eat tinned food and it is certainly fit for humans now. We are keen to show that we have a lot more than just David Brent and “The Office” to offer. Slough is a fantastic, diverse cultural melting pot and now it has become a major business, creative and cultural powerhouse, with Pinewood Studios right on our doorstep. A lot of people from Slough are working there, contributing to our collective national culture and increasing our collective national pride in our country.

We have the iconic old Adelphi cinema in Slough, where the Beatles performed on more than one occasion. The council and other organisations are doing brilliant work. We have the Slough youth awards, which exemplify the magnificent creativity of our young people. I think our town would do very well if we were competing with other towns up and down the country.

I impress on the Minister that there is so much support for this idea: we would be obliged if he confirmed that an annual town of culture prize rather than just a city of culture prize would be conferred. If it comes to sharing the money more fairly, current statistics show that Arts Council funding is more than four times higher on average in city constituencies than in town constituencies. About 70% of Arts Council national portfolio theatre grants awarded in 2015 to 2018 went to cities, with a pitiful 12% awarded to towns. The current scenario is not good enough; our towns are being left behind.

Many people from working-class backgrounds, residing in towns, are being excluded from arts and culture. Our communities can benefit. I am well aware that there are many different Members wanting to speak, so I will bring my points to a conclusion, but please, please let us have the annual town of culture award.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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23 Jan 2019, 5:18 p.m.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on bringing forward the debate. We were proud to be the home nation of the first UK city crowned city of culture in 2013—lovely Londonderry. As the Member for Strangford, I well remember thinking that Newtownards, despite all that we have to offer, could never be considered for that prestigious title because it is not a city. That is why I am pleased to be here and to support the right hon. Gentleman.

The award would enable the tourism industry to point its eyes and minds towards the hidden gems throughout this beautiful United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; it would be worth every penny needed to set the initiative up.

Let me give the example of Newtownards—we are all here for our constituencies, and why not? The little town is 25 minutes from the airport on a great road with enhanced travel links in the form of local bus routes, which are fully modern. Visitors could stay in the local hotel or in one of the many B&Bs that dot the area. The B&Bs have phenomenal views of countryside and the incomparable Strangford Lough; I live on the edge of it. Ulster Scots culture, history, verse, poetry and music— it is all there.

People can have an active holiday as well, with water sports, cycling and quad racing parks, sedate walks in our forest parks and country rambles. We have the world-famous Mount Stewart gardens and country home, Scrabo tower and Exploris in Portaferry, which is renowned the world over. Those who want the arts can enjoy choral performances in the old Priory, which dates back to St Patrick, and the independently-owned Lyric theatre, as well as all the other things that come with cinema and nightlife. For those who want to shop—everybody likes to shop, especially the ladies—we have a high street packed with boutique shops to suit anyone’s tastes. For the kids, we have the Ark open farm, which is exactly what we need.

You want a spa weekend? Of course you do. We have a brand new all-singing, all-dancing Ards Blair Mayne Wellbeing and Leisure complex, with clip and climb, crazy golf, soft play and swimming facilities for the children, Swedish saunas, steam rooms, aromatherapy rooms, heated seating, heated relaxation pools and beauty appointments, all in one place—Newtownards. We have fine dining, because once you have got rid of all that extra weight, you can go for Thai, Chinese, Indian, or Italian food, good homemade cooking and even pub grub. It is all there—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) knows it, too.

I know that other MPs can well boast of their towns, and they should, but I will say this: I do not think any of them can really compare to Newtownards. Yet the sad fact is that not enough people know that the £50 flight to Northern Ireland is well worth every penny. This award is something that could highlight Newtownards and other towns like it. I thank the right hon. Member for Delyn and give him my full support. I have my application ready for the first award.

Helen Goodman Portrait Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
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23 Jan 2019, 5:21 p.m.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing this debate. In thinking about the decline of towns, we have concentrated a lot on shopping and shops, and I think we have the balance wrong. The idea of a town of culture award is really important, because people want far more in the place they live in than to be able to go shopping.

My constituents have a fantastically rich heritage. Barnard castle, for example, was the home of Richard III and it is now the home to the greatest collection of European paintings between London and Edinburgh, at the Bowes Museum. Shildon is the birthplace of the railway and at the moment we are limbering up for the celebration of 200 years since 1825, with a heritage action zone. Bishop Auckland itself has been the home of the Bishops of Durham for 900 years.

Perhaps this is the most interesting example of how culture can be used to regenerate: the Church Commissioners had the idea of selling Zurbarán paintings that hung in the palace, and local people completely opposed that. We ran a very successful campaign to keep those works of art in Bishop Auckland and not to let them be taken to a gallery in London or even the west coast of America. Consequently, a philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer, came and has invested in the castle. We are now seeing an absolute flowering, including a new Spanish art gallery, in partnership with the Museo del Prado in Madrid, a mining art gallery, a summer night show, Kynren, and a museum of the history of religion supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

That is all absolutely flourishing and it is giving people a new focus and a new sense of pride. It is great for people who live there, but it is also a reason for tourists to come to the town, and that has economic spin-offs. We have created lots of apprenticeships and are hoping to create 1,000 jobs. If anybody wants to get off the train between York and Edinburgh, I suggest that a long weekend in my constituency would be fantastic.

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Gavin Newlands Portrait Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)
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23 Jan 2019, 5:44 p.m.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr McCabe, and I congratulate my colleague on the Select Committee on Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), on securing this debate. I am pleased that this ever-so-slightly oversubscribed debate is taking place, and I fully support the initiative that he set out so eloquently. I am not sure what the record is for the number of contributions in a 60-minute debate, but so far we have heard 19 passionate sales pitches on behalf of constituencies across England and Wales, and we are about to hear one from Scotland.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Northern Ireland as well.

Gavin Newlands Portrait Gavin Newlands
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23 Jan 2019, 5:44 p.m.

And from Northern Ireland, with apologies to the persistent hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I will come to him. We have heard so many pitches. In a 60-minute debate, we have heard from the right hon. Members for Delyn, and for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), the hon. Members for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), the right hon. Members for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Strangford, for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), for High Peak (Ruth George), for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones), and for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). The strength of feeling is pretty clear.

It is vital that we recognise the value of our towns, big or small. They often have bigger personalities than cities many times bigger. I am proud to be an MP for Paisley, the town I was born in. My friend George Adam, the MSP for Paisley, often refers to it as the centre of the universe. In an Adjournment debate in November 2016, I provided evidence to show that, for its size, Paisley is unrivalled in its contribution to the world. It can be said that Paisley is one of the reasons why we are having this debate: as some hon. Member’s will be aware, the Paisley 2020 campaign for UK city of culture helped raise awareness of Paisley’s spectacular, historical and ongoing cultural contribution to the world. Although we were robbed blind of what was rightfully ours, the bid alone was fantastic for the town and will leave a legacy of its own. The fact that Paisley was the first town to make the shortlist highlights the issue with the city of culture award, as it stands, without an accompanying town award.

A city or town of culture award will provide an excellent opportunity to boost the profile, economy and self-confidence of the winning town or city. The bidding process alone is a huge opportunity and can be cathartic. I can speak only for Paisley’s experience, but at the start of the process, the number of Paisley buddies and those from wider Renfrewshire who were highly cynical about the bid and viewed the town negatively far outweighed the number who supported the bid. However, as the months passed, buddies were reminded of what was and is great about the town, and learned about some of the planned investments and events, and that opinion rapidly shifted.

Despite losing out on the award, some of the investment plans have remained in place; there is a £110 million investment plan for the town centre and venues. To me, the real value and prize of the bid was getting buddies to believe in the town again. Unlike the majority of UK cities, the name Paisley is known worldwide, having given the world the famous pattern of the same name, though we may have borrowed it from somewhere else, as you may well know, Mr McCabe. Paisley’s textile mills—the first of which was built by the Coats company, which at one point was the biggest company in the British empire and the third-largest company in the world—started mass producing shawls with the pattern. The name Paisley is literally woven into history.

Paisley was home to the world’s first constituted Burns club and is also home to the UK’s largest youth theatre, PACE, which has helped produce fantastic performers—this is where Paisley outshines the towns mentioned in the rest of the contributions, I would say—such as James McAvoy, Paolo Nutini and Richard Madden, who recently won a Golden Globe for his role in the BBC drama “The Bodyguard”, which featured a fantastical plot about a UK Government Minister up to no good, which obviously would not happen in real life. Paisley can also boast of calling Gerry Rafferty, David Tennant and Gerard Butler our own.

Paisley is not the only town or village in my constituency with a proud cultural heritage. From Bishopton to Bridge of Weir, and from Elderslie to Erskine, everywhere has something to offer. The historical capital of Renfrewshire, my home town since I was four years old, has a proud history that few can match. Renfrew is known as the cradle of the royal Stuarts, as it was an early home to the final royal family of the Kingdom of Scotland. In 1164 at the battle of Renfrew, King Malcolm IV of Scotland repelled Somerled, the Lord of the Isles.

We all have many towns and cities rich in history and culture, many of which miss out on vital investment. This proposed town of culture award would potentially unlock that investment and bring a sense of pride back to these places. My message to hon. Members across this House is that Renfrewshire stands ready to win any such award. I urge the Minister to take this proposal forward.