Cities argue over local heroes to win culture title

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A multi-million pound race to become Britain's most fashionable tourist destination is turning into a bitter battle over the relative artistic merits of some of the nation's most famous cities.

A multi-million pound race to become Britain's most fashionable tourist destination is turning into a bitter battle over the relative artistic merits of some of the nation's most famous cities.

Thirteen hats have been thrown into the ring to be named as European Capital of Culture, a title that is guaranteed to be bestowed upon a British winner in 2008.

Apart from Glasgow, which was granted the accolade in 1990, no British city has held the title first conferred on Athens in 1985. Glasgow's success generated the equivalent of £19m in income, created 6,000 jobs and transformed the city's reputation.

So much is at stake in the latest round of bidding that jealous rivalries have surfaced, with tugs-of-war over treasured elements of local cultural heritage.

The success of Hollywood's version of The Lord of The Rings has raised tensions over the civic loyalties of its author, JRR Tolkien, for example. Although he was born in Birmingham, he has been claimed as a champion by a rival bidder, Oxford. The city of dreaming spires, whose bid is part funded by Oxford University, has drawn up an impressive list of literary connections. It is also in dispute with Belfast over its claim to the Ulster-born writer CS Lewis.

Bristol has signed up the Harry Potter author, J K Rowling, who is from just outside the city, while Liverpool is winning kudos from the Merseyside-based film The 51st State, whose American star, Samuel L Jackson, is endorsing its bid.

All competitors for the title must stake their claim by the end of March and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will appoint a panel to nominate a shortlist in the autumn. The final decision will be taken, on recommendation from the panel, by Tony Blair, who has close ties to one of the strongest bidders, Newcastle and Gateshead. The Labour Party chairman, Charles Clarke, who is MP for Norwich South, would probably prefer the nod to be given to the East Anglian city.

The competition has produced a fierce debate over the very meaning of culture, with most bidders employing outside public relations companies to plug their campaigns.

The 13 British cities competing for the prize hope to emulate the long-term boost enjoyed by Glasgow. Between 1991 and 1998 the number of British tourists to Glasgow was up by 90 per cent while the number of overseas visitors rose by a quarter. Glasgow is now the third most popular UK destination for foreign tourists after London and Edinburgh.

Birmingham and Bradford are both seeking to emphasise the richness of their ethnic diversity, though the latter's bid has been somewhat undermined by last summer's rioting.

Inverness, whose bid incorporates the Highlands, is stressing the environmental beauty of the region and the activities it can offer such as ski-ing and climbing. Canterbury is highlighting the culture of travel.

Brighton, with the brash claim "Where Else?", will stress its youth and vitality in a campaign championed by the DJ Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook. It has promised to adorn its most famous buildings with massive sculptures designed to represent body-piercings. Milton Keynes, the city of the concrete cow, has not yet confirmed its bid but its cultural planning manager, Chris Murray, said it would highlight the lot of all Europeans living in "new developments". He said: "The cultural needs of those people are just as important as those in other towns and cities."

Across the Irish Sea, the "Imagine Belfast" campaign is gathering pace, helped by the cultural regeneration of the city arising from the Northern Ireland peace process.

Some of the biggest names in the British arts world have been signed up. Bradford has the artist David Hockney and the film director Lord Puttnam, while the actors Kenneth Branagh and Jeremy Irons are allied to Belfast and Bristol respectively.

Other cities have had to dredge the C-list for mildly famous celebrity backers. The Countdown presenter Richard Whiteley is an ambassador for Bradford and patrons for the Cardiff bid include Rolf Harris (born in Merthyr) and the interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. Liverpool is supported by the comedian Ken Dodd and the televsion presenter Loyd Grossman.

BELFAST

Population 257,000.
Landmarks Queen's University.
Strengths of bid Rebirth of a city through the peace process.
Weakness of bid Danger of political instability.
Traditional culture C S Lewis, invention of the tractor and pneumatic tyre.
Modern culture Van Morrison.
Celebrity backers Kenneth Branagh, George Best (pictured).

BIRMINGHAM

Population 988,000.
Landmarks NEC, Symphony Hall.
Strengths of bid Big events, diverse population.
Weakness of bid Lawrence commission exposed racial discrimination in city.
Traditional culture J R R Tolkien, Birmingham Royal Ballet, D'Oyly Carte opera, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (above).
Modern culture Centre of Asian Bhangra music scene.
Celebrity backers None.

BRADFORD

Population 290,400 plus surrounding area.
Landmarks National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (pictured).
Strengths of bid Centre of cultural excellence, racially diverse.
Weaknesses of bid Summer riots badly scarred city's image.
Traditional culture J B Priestley, David Hockney.
Modern culture Asian Mela.
Celebrity backers Lord Puttnam, Richard Whiteley.

BRIGHTON & HOVE

Population 250,000.
Landmarks Royal Pavilion, the piers (pictured).
Strengths of bid Newest and most modern city in the race.
Weaknesses of bid Lack of high-brow culture.
Traditional culture Regency London came to unwind here.
Modern culture Brighton Festival, giant sculptures of "body-pierced" buildings.
Celebrity backers Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook.

BRISTOL

Population 400,000.
Landmarks Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Strengths of bid Good mix of architecture, heritage and modern music.
Weaknesses of bid Perceived weak civic leadership.
Traditional culture Archie Leach (aka Cary Grant).
Modern culture Trip Hop, Wallace and Gromit (pictured)
Celebrity backers John Cleese, J K Rowling

CANTERBURY and EAST KENT

Population 709,000.
Landmarks Cathedral (pictured).
Strengths of bid Proximity to mainland Europe.
Weakness of bid Lack of modern cultural references.
Traditional culture JMW Turner and the playwright Christopher Marlowe.
Modern culture The Channel Tunnel.
Celebrity backers Joanna Lumley, Gary Rhodesand Michael Barry.

CARDIFF

Population 279,000.
Landmarks Millennium Stadium, Welsh Assembly.
Strengths of bid The only real capital bidding.
Weakness of bid Transport system.
Traditional culture Welsh language, the Eisteddfod.
Modern culture Charlotte Church, Manic Street Preachers (pictured).
Celebrity backers Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, Rolf Harris.

INVERNESS

Population 41,200 plus wider Highland region.
Landmarks Ben Nevis (pictured).
Strengths of bid Environment theme, based on the Cairngorms, the Flow Country, mountain sports.
Weakness of bid Scottish winner last time round.
Traditional culture The Gaelic language, music, shinty.
Modern culture Skiing and rock climbing.
Celebrity backers No one yet announced.

MILTON KEYNES

Population 32,000.
Landmarks Concrete cows (pictured).
Strengths of bid Lack of history; many Europeans live in similar developments.
Weaknesses of bid Late starter; bid not yet confirmed.
Traditional culture Nothing obvious.
Modern culture One of the largest collections of publicly sited art in Britain.
Celebrity backers Could include Kevin Whateley, Cleo Laine.

LIVERPOOL

Population 468,000.
Landmarks The Liver Building, St George's Hall, John Lennon airport.
Strengths of bid Famous musical heritage.
Weakness of bid Under-developed private sector.
Traditional culture Beatles, Alan Bleasdale, Walker Gallery.
Modern culture Tate gallery, the Creamfields Festival.
Celebrity backers Samuel L Jackson, Willie Russell, Peter Sissons, Ken Dodd.

NEWCASTLE/GATESHEAD

Population Nearly 500,000.
Landmarks Angel of the North (pictured), bridges.
Strengths of bid Massive regeneration under way, strong political connections to Tony Blair and friends.
Weakness of bid Dangers of cronyism accusations, fiasco over Radio 1 Love Parade.
Traditional culture Catherine Cookson.
Modern culture Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.
Celebrity backers Ant and Dec, Robson Green.

NORWICH

Population 300,000 including outlying areas.
Landmarks Cathedral.
Strengths in bid Britain's best-preserved medieval city (pictured).
Weaknesses in bid Highbrow but not fashionable.
Traditional culture Architectural heritage.
Modern culture Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Rose Tremain, Kazuo Ishiguro.
Celebrity backers Andrew Motion.

OXFORD

Population Nearly 120,000.
Landmarks The Ashmolean and the Dreaming Spires.
Strengths of bid Worldwide fame as cultural centre.
Weakness of bid Seen as centre of élitism.
Traditional culture J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis, Lewis Carroll.
Modern culture Supergrass, Philip Pullman.
Celebrity backers Radiohead.

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