You've heard of City of Culture – but could Grimsby be the first Town of Culture?
Could Grimsby's Dock Tower become the symbol of the first Town of Culture award? (Image: Jon Corken/GrimsbyLive)
By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 14 Feb 2019
Grimsby, Town of Culture 2023 – an oxymoron or a glimpse of the future? Parliamentary correspondent Patrick Daly reports on why MPs want to celebrate town life.
For those watching from the south bank of the Humber, 2017 was at times a painful year.
Hull, for so long a sparring partner with Grimsby during the fishing heyday, saw its name in lights for 12 months during its time as City of Culture.
Journalists from The Guardian clambered over themselves each weekend to fight for who could fawn most over the home of Philip Larkin and Amy Johnson, totally ignoring the fact they had spent the proceeding years believing Hull had nothing to offer but graffiti and urban concrete, mainly thanks to its number one status in the Crap Towns books.
When Hull was announced as the host city for the culture concept in 2013, many across the UK, and even some naysayers in the north bank city itself, scoffed at the idea. What culture did an end-of-the-line city such as Hull have to offer? The answer, after five million recorded visitors during the year, £220 million of investment, tourism profits of £300 million and a permanent Banksy installation, was that Hullensians had a lot to show off to the world.
Since the end of the 2017 festivities, Hull has been voted as one of the top three most improved UK cities to live, putting into practise the theory that culture can help bring about regeneration, economic uplift and social improvements.
Why Grimsby should be the first ever Town of Culture
MPs are keen for that arts-driven boost not to be confined only to cities – towns like Grimsby should get a look in too, they say.
There were efforts made to ensure people from Grimsby could make the most of Hull’s year in the spotlight but moves to install later running buses between the major Humber populations or to bring some events over to the town never got off the ground. Despite only being across the water, Grimsby saw little benefit from City of Culture 2017.
Great Grimsby MP Melanie Onn is one of those who support setting up a complementing "town of culture" award to allow constituencies like hers to share in the UK's cultural revolution.
She said Grimsby deserved a chance to show the world it had more to offer than what was seen on Skint, the 2014 fly-on-the-wall TV programme depicting daily life for people living on benefits in the town.
In a debate in Parliament, Ms Onn said: "Grimsby is a proud, tough, hard-working town full of committed and enthusiastic people who are keen to improve the area and make it a more desirable place to stay, work and play.
Great Grimsby MP Melanie Onn backs setting up the Town of Culture award
"The people of Grimsby know that they are much more than Skint and Sacha Baron Cohen's Grimsby film. How wonderful it would be if we had the chance to put all those positive things together and won what will clearly be a much-coveted award."
The good news for Ms Onn and other cultural-types is that North East Lincolnshire Council is keen on the idea of bidding for Town of Culture if the proposal gets the nod of approval from ministers.
Councillor Gaynor Rogers, portfolio holder for tourism, heritage and culture, said: “We fully support this idea. There are lots of smaller towns and villages across the UK that are cultural gems, but miss out on funding opportunities because they can’t compete with bigger cities.
“Our area’s heritage potential is finally being realised following lots of hard work to win funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Cultural Development Fund.
“This has given us the means to start to look at some exciting large scale projects, and develop a cultural infrastructure that fosters growth for the future."
Councils might be keen but the Government, however, has yet to be effusive on the idea. Junior culture minister Michael Ellis failed to come out in support of it during a Westminster Hall debate on the issue.
Melanie Onn MP said her town had more to offer than Sacha Baron Cohen's 'Grimsby' film portrayed
He said nearby towns were able to submit joint bids to win the City of Culture crown during last year’s process for determining the host city in 2021, which was won by Coventry.
The Northampton North MP did recognise, however, that such an arrangement was not weighted in the favour of Britain's towns, especially when it came to competing with the financial might of the country's cities.
The Tory front bench minister, addressing MPs during a debate on January 23 on the issue, said he would look again at the "offer to towns" when reviewing the City of Culture criteria before the process for bidding to be the 2025 host city starts.
Mr Ellis said: "I am currently reviewing the criteria for any future competitions and will continue to keep under careful consideration the offer to towns, as well as the burden of bidding. This debate has been very influential in that regard."
Grimsby is embracing its culture and successful bids for central Government cash to spruce up the historic area around the Kasbah, once the centre of the bustling fishing industry, and the rest of the docks, has brought a renewed focus on the town's proud history.
The town was awarded £5 million for public art projects to celebrate the region's past achievements, with £3.2 million of that coming from the Department for Digital, Culture and Media and Sport's Cultural Development Fund.
The Greater Grimsby Heritage Action Zone project has seen Associated British Ports (ABP), the council and Historic England team up in a £3.7 million bid to restore the Kasbah's vacant buildings and bring them back into use.
That transformation has already started, with port owners ABP last month welcoming new tenants Creative Start, a group helping people and families recovering from addiction, to a freshly spruced-up property.
Craft beer brewers Docks Beers has revealed plans to open a gig and stand-up comedy venue above its King Edward Street tap room – another sign of life being brought back to the dock area.
Docks Beers directors Shahram Shadan (left) and Will Douglas think the space above its King Edward Street tap room could become an attraction(Image: Jon Corken/GrimsbyLive)
It all feeds into the 10-year vision linked to the £36 million Grimsby Town Deal which wants to see much more made of Grimsby's waterfronts and to breathe fresh life into the town centre as somewhere to live, work and study.
Labour MP Ms Onn has sung the praises of the efforts in both securing the culture cash and for the town coming together to restore the Kasbah to its former glory.
She said: "On top of the exciting events and installations that we hope to see once this money [£5 million for public art] comes through, we have had our town deal agreed.
"We have had agreements from Associated British Ports that the famous Kasbah area of the Grimsby docks can start to be developed and opened up.
"It has received money from the Heritage Lottery Fund and has been given a boost by a company called Creative Start Art, which is taking up a tenancy to kick-start regeneration in the heritage action zone."
The shadow housing minister said Grimsby had a long list of attractions which could be used during a year of cultural celebrations, not to mention a dance star to promote the town.
Kevin Clifton at Grimsby Auditorium (Image: Jon Corken/GrimsbyLive)
Ms Onn said: "Culture comes in many different forms. Grimsby has not only a wonderful concert venue, the Grimsby Central Hall, which more people should go to, but the annual Bradley Youth Festival, which showcases local acting, musical and spoken word talent.
"We have an amazing arts section at the local college, which excels in designing for movies, doing makeup and theatre sets. We have the Caxton Theatre, the Auditorium in which Kevin from Grimsby will star in Burn the Floor, the Fishing Heritage Centre, the Time Trap Museum, and a range of knitters, sportspeople and dancers."
Grimsby is being held up in some Westminster quarters, after its success at winning approval from ministers for the first-stage of the town deal plans, as a place that has embraced its town status and used that self-confidence to convince ministers to hand over cash to help improve the look of the town and provide support to its community.
No-one yet knows if the Government will give Town of Culture the sign-off and backing it needs but, as Ms Onn says, where better than Grimsby to prove English towns still have a vital role to play in 21st century Britain?
As a town rather than a city, Grimsby might not boast a population of millions or be home to a host of shiny glass skyscrapers but it has heart, history and hope in abundance. And "Grimsby 2023" doesn't half have a great ring to it.