Derby is not known as a tourist mecca. Often overshadowed by nearby Nottingham, bypassed on the Peak District route, locals here know that hotels are quietest on weekends when business people are off.
That hasn’t stopped its leaders from tilting to become UK City of Culture 2025. Bidding to reinvigorate civic pride and economic growth after the fallout from Covid-19, the aim here is to showcase the unique industrial heritage of the city as a crucible for the art of manufacturing.
“It’s our version of the Olympics,” says Adam Buss, general manager of the city’s Quad Arts Hall and bid director for the 2025 campaign. be that people go by the M1, or by train. But what we mean with the city of culture is ‘Stop! Come here.'”
Competing against seven other locations – including Southampton, Bradford, Stirling and the whole county of Cornwall – Derby hopes to replicate some of the economic growth, investment and feel-good factor enjoyed by previous winners such as Hull and Derry-Londonderry.
With final offers for shortlisted candidates due this week, it comes as ministers prepare to launch the long-awaited ‘upgrade’ plan for places like Derby – with a white paper from Michael Gove’s department expected within a few days.
As the city puts its cultural offer on display, there is also cause for concern. Its most high-profile attraction – Derby County Football Club – is struggling, at risk of going into liquidation with unsustainable debt.
“It would be catastrophic if something big happened,” Buss says. Losing the championship team led by Wayne Rooney would affect the city’s cultural weight on the national stage. “This should be a wake-up call for the UK and the rest of the footballing world.”
Locals know the City of Culture bid might raise an eyebrow or two, coming from a place often bypassed by great touring musicians. Most of the big bands play in Nottingham Rock City, requiring a trip down Brian Clough Way – a stretch of the A52 named after the director of football famous for bringing success to both towns despite fierce rivalry between the two. Derby’s largest venue – the Assembly Rooms – has lain derelict since fire tore through the brutalist building in 2014.
But critics miss the point, says Buss. “It’s a bit like Hull. Many of their messages said, “It’s fine to criticize us, but do you know us? Have you been here? Do you understand what is happening? »
Rather than an award for Britain’s most vibrant place, the City of Culture award is best understood as an arts-led catalyst to revive the fortunes of overlooked places that have untapped potential.
In Derby, the plan is to show that its industry and artistic prowess are vital ingredients for economic and cultural success, and why some of Britain’s biggest manufacturers – including Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Alstom – still call the place home for a long time. after construction by John Lombe. the world’s first fully mechanized factory here on the River Derwent in the 1700s.
Chris Cholerton, president of civil aerospace at Rolls-Royce, who sits on the global company’s leadership team, was born and raised in Derby. Holder of a subscription to Pride Park, he fears for the future of the football club.
“We sometimes joke – and it’s probably just a joke – that Monday morning productivity at the factory is always much higher when Derby have won. We’re a football town. It’s a big chunk of our fabric, so we hope everything will be fine.
The engineering giant has called Derby home since 1908, employing around 12,000 people to design, manufacture and test its Trent jet engines designed to power Airbus and Boeing passenger planes around the world.
Rolls suffered an unprecedented hit during the pandemic as planes were grounded, forcing it to cut 9,000 jobs worldwide – including in Derby. Production volumes have halved, but the company still chose its historic home to consolidate when it made cuts to save money.
In the vast engine assembly hall, equipment used to assemble jet turbine blades – each fine twist of metal harnesses the power of an F1 car – awaits use after being shipped back from Singapore, where Rolls closed a factory last year in an effort to save money.
While the local art scene isn’t a big reason to return, Cholerton says culture can play a big role.
“As we move forward with decarbonizing aviation, it won’t be static; we need to attract more engineers. This ability to continue to attract and retain talent – with both a great work environment and a great city to live in – is very powerful. »
Manufacturing still accounts for a quarter of Derby’s economy, well above the national average and more than double that of other industrial revolution crucibles such as Manchester, Glasgow or Birmingham. In a place where Joseph Wright expressed the Industrial Age through painting in the 18th century, it’s a reminder that culture takes many forms and isn’t always the one found in a grand gallery or opulent theatre.
Further afield, at Alstom, the French multinational builds monorails for the Cairo Metro in locomotive sheds dating back to 1876. As one of Britain’s biggest rail hubs, the company uses its base here to design and manufacture its latest models; including those for HS2 and London’s new Elizabeth line.
Nick Crossfield, Alstom’s managing director for the UK and Ireland, explains that young employees are increasingly choosing where to work before considering the sector in which they want to work. Improving Derby’s cultural sites will be key to attracting coders and developers, as well as graphic designers. , to a city that already has status in the gaming industry as the birthplace of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
“The facilities, the institutions, the Derby profile are really important to us,” he says.
At Toyota’s sprawling Burnaston plant on the outskirts of town, it’s the same story. Tim Freeman, deputy managing director of Toyota Manufacturing UK, says investing in culture and the arts in the city will create an environment to attract new talent.
Most of the cars running the treadmill miles are left-hand drive, destined for export to the EU, despite tougher obstacles to doing business after Brexit. Although he is a supporter of Derby’s main rivals Nottingham Forest, he sees the City of Culture bid as an opportunity to help the city recover from the pandemic.
“Derby, like many other cities, has been hit hard in terms of the economy by Covid. And I think through this activity that they’re engaging in, I think that can help regenerate some economic growth.
While hopes are high for the cultural bid, Derby has endured years of Westminster-led austerity, with the local council forced to cut 50 jobs to find budget savings of more than £13million next year.
Towns and villages outside London and the South East have suffered more severe cuts to culture, with council funding for the arts down 38.5% in a decade. According to the Fabian Society, Arts Council England National Lottery funds contributed the equivalent of £50.40 per person to London-based organisations, compared to £21.26 per person for the rest of England.
There is no guarantee of additional lottery money for the Culture City winning bid. But former title holders Coventry secured £16million in government funding, while Hull received £15million. A government spokesperson said the format of the 2025 competition had not changed, while it could also be a catalyst for foreign investment.
Buss says donors are expected to come forward. However, his greatest hope is that Derby can become a focal point for addressing the major cultural and economic challenges facing the UK in the 21st century, from climate change to technology. “The beginning of the industrial revolution happened here. But if you ask people where they would go in the country to find answers to big challenges, they might not say Derby. The city of culture can give us this beacon.