But what you can compare with more certainty is the relative prosperity between the six contenders. Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham are all simmering within the hinterland of the sizzling economic hothouse of southeast England, whilst Oxford is boiling over well within its borders. No doubt all would benefit from the extra investment, but do they really need it? Does Oxford really need more tourists? And how much would local Oxford people really have benefited from the award relative to its current prosperity? A local socialist councillor strongly criticised the bid on a BBC4 documentary about the contest, believing that his constituents in Oxford’s periphery - away from unversity and business interests - would see few of the benefits.
Newcastle-Gateshead was the bookies early favourite and perhaps would have won a year or two ago. But it peaked too early with impressive redevelopment on the banks of the Tyne, the Baltic Art Gallery, the Millennium Bridge and the much publicised Angel of the North. But according to a recent report in the Guardian, many local people still await the benefits. Read Can culture save us? for more information.
But what caught the judge’s eye about the eventual winners, Liverpool, was that they felt that the bid involved the people of the city to a greater extent than any other. And it’s this that underlies the idea behind European City of Culture. It’s not about culture at all, but about regenerating cities which due to chronic underinvestment in the past, currently have the greatest need for extra resources. Of course Liverpool - with a Tate Gallery, two cathedrals, two football teams and a bustling nightlife - already has plenty of cultural heritage. But the local people in its post-industrial peripheral estates also have much to gain from the inclusive nature of the bid.
The idea of using culture as a magical panacea to regenerate areas does not always work however. The Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield closed soon after opening because of lack of interest. And this idea of large capital intensive projects misguidedly dumped into a location with little thought given to the subtle and specific requirements of that place is also relevant in terms of global justice and international affairs.
Much of the debt currently owed by the impoverished states of the world was incurred via capital intensive projects such as dams and factories which were built during the last 40 years. The projects were highly beneficial to the banks and construction firms of rich countries (and a few corrupt politicians in the host countries) but did little to address the concerns of local people in promoting sustainable development.
Following the themes of economic rather than cultural analysis, and corporate concerns rather than local needs, goes some way in explaining why Beijing has been awarded 2008’s slightly more important cultural accolade: the Olympic Games. Multinational corporations view China as rich pickings - a virtually untapped market of more than a billion people. With many yet to buy even basic consumer goods, it’s a marketing manager’s utopia compared with the saturated markets of the richer western / northern segments of the globe. And the Olympics offer the perfect opportunity for the initial mass “penetration” of the Chinese market.
But will the local people of Beijing benefit in the same way the judges back in Britain hope Liverpudlians will? Or were the human rights abusers merely whipping faster, suspending higher and beating stronger their many torture victims, even as the IOC officials were pondering their choice? Or is it all part of a larger deal to bring China into the international fold with provisos on improving human rights?
The New York based group Human Rights in China has reported that in 2001 homeless people, beggars and other “disreputables” deemed unfit for the eyes of the visiting IOC delegation were forcibly removed from the streets of Beijing, with doubts arising as to their subsequent whereabouts. But this is dwarfed by other human rights issues including Tiananmen Square, Tibet and Falun Gong.
The decision to leave a flawed Oxford bid well alone and reward Merseyside some much needed regional economic boosterism deserves to be applauded. But can the same be said of Beijing? How many local people will “benefit” in the Global City of Culture 2008? For the Beijing Olympics to truly be a success, we must take our eyes away from the sporting contests and into the jails, hoping that the reward of hosting such a prestigious and lucrative event will bring pressure on the Chinese authorities to improve their dismal human rights record, and not merely allow multinationals easy access to one of the world’s largest and fastest growing markets.