Britain's cultural capital ... Barnsley?

Unlikely candidates are lining up for honour as Tories throw weight behind contest. Michael Savage reports
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The Independent Online

An award that could see Barnsley become the new Barcelona, or help transform Chorley into an unlikely hotspot for Britain's culture vultures, will go ahead under a Conservative government.

Bidders for the title of Britain's first City of Culture had feared that the honour, devised by the former culture secretary Andy Burnham, would be canned under a new government because the winner is not set to be announced until after the next general election. However, Jeremy Hunt, the shadow Culture Secretary, has confirmed that he is a fan of the scheme.

The chosen city would become the venue for high-profile events such as the Brit Awards, the Turner Prize and the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year. The first winner will host a year of activities in 2013. The accolade, which will be awarded every four years, was devised after Liverpool's stint as Europe's Capital of Culture last year.

"A City of Culture competition can really galvanise a city, as Liverpool demonstrated," Mr Hunt told The Independent. "It can bring together the local community, provides a cultural showcase and can offer a fantastic platform to attract visitors. We await the results of this competition with keen interest, especially given the number of high-quality candidate cities that are on the list."

A longlist of 29 competitors was released last month. Belfast has since pulled out. It will be whittled down to a shortlist in January, with the winner named around June. The competitors met at a seminar with officials last month and were given pointers on how to help their cities ride the zeitgeist.

London has been banned from entering the competition because organisers believe that too much of British culture is focused on the capital.

The Berkshire commuter-belt metropolis of Reading is in the running. Listed number 36 in The Idler magazine's inaugural list of "crap towns", it stages an eponymous annual music festival and has an expanding information technology industry.

Hostilities broke out yesterday between the auld East Anglian enemies of Norwich and Ipswich, whose previous cultural clashes have been voiced through the unsavoury chanting of their respective football fans at derby clashes.

The leader of Norwich City Council, Steve Morphew, claimed yesterday: "It is fair to say that, when it comes to culture, the discerning people in Ipswich get on a train and come to Norwich."

Ipswich borough's director, Jonathan Owen, hit back: "Norwich is a small city of 130,000 people. We're not sure that could sustain a year of events." He added: "The area included in our bid covers around 600,000 people." The Suffolk town hopes to win the award by marketing itself as the birthplace of Britain: promoting sites of Anglo-Saxon remains, and links to the Reformation.

Bath has emerged as an early front-runner, but many bidders prefer to keep their plans close to their chests. Mystery surrounds one of the shortlisted cities, which has asked not to be identified – a potential stumbling block in attracting visitors. Sources said the secret location is a "northern English city". Aberdeen had also remained anonymous, but unmasked itself last month.

The chances of one outsider, simply calling itself "the Countryside", were scuppered when Whitehall mandarins suggested that bid organisers may need to come up with a more precise location. Its withdrawal could provide a boost for a rival. "We will probably not launch a formal bid now," said a spokesman for the Countryside. "But we will be lending our support to Cornwall or the Pennines."

City of Culture: The bidders

*Wakefield

Home of Britain's largest high-security prison. The Yorkshire city will boost its cultural credentials when it opens the Hepworth Wakefield sculpture gallery in 2011.

*Hull

Home to the poet Philip Larkin. Topped The Idler's "crap Towns" list in 2003, but hopes that its maritime heritage and nine free museums will convince judges.

*Chorley

Famous for the Chorley cake – flattened, fruit-laden pastries similar to Eccles cake. The Lancashire market town's wealth derives from its cotton industry past.

*Reading

Jane Austen went to school in Reading, later the hometown of Kate Winslet and Kenneth Branagh, both right. Also the enforced base of the imprisoned Oscar Wilde from 1895 to 1897.

*Derby

England's first ever factory was built here in 1702. Has a high concentration of real ale pubs. One of few places to have a cathedral but remain a town. Its Odeon cinema holds the record for the largest container of popcorn.

The other 23 places on the longlist are: Aberdeen, Barnsley, Birmingham, Bradford, Brighton and Hove, Carlisle, Chester, Chichester, City of Bath, Cornwall, Co Durham, Derry City, Gloucester and Cheltenham, Ipswich and Haven Gateway, Leicester, Manchester, Norwich, Oxford, Pennine Lancashire, Sheffield, The Countryside, Urban South Hampshire, and an anonymous town, apparently in the north of England.

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