Bill Bryson (above) has given his support to Durham's bid to become the first UK City of Culture. Picture courtesy Bournemouth University
Durham and Birmingham have thrown their hats into the ring after Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw announced a nationwide competition to find the first UK City of Culture.
Potential entrants for the lucrative title have been given until October to submit outline offers, with bidders who complete an Expression of Interest form invited to a September summit in Liverpool, where officials from the city's European Capital of Culture 2008 triumph will be dishing out tips.
"While the 2008 Capital of Culture has had well-documented impacts for Liverpool, a successful bid could have a completely transforming effect on a city and county on the scale of Durham," said Paul Gudgin, a former director of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival who is a consultant for Durham's bid.
"Liverpool represented an attempt to revitalise a large, post-industrial city through culture. We have the opportunity to show that awarding UK City of Culture to Durham will represent a real contrast."
Leaders in the picturesque North-East city believe the bid could save the economy of a county where reliance on traditional employment sectors is causing job losses at a faster rate than the rest of the region.
"The bid signals a new start," declared Durham County Council leader Dr Simon Henig, noting the estimated £800 million economic boost Liverpool earned from their stint.
"The whole process gives us a unique opportunity to examine our future aspirations and how, by putting culture centre-stage, we can drive the county's economic prospects. Just taking part can help put Durham on the map as a centre for culture and creativity."
Council leaders in Durham are hoping to repeat the massive economic boost seen in Liverpool during the city's spell as the European Capital of Culture in 2008
DCC Chief Executive George Garlick said a combination of "spiritual and industrial heritage", "outstanding natural landscapes" and a "picture-perfect" centre marked Durham out.
"We're aiming to exploit this mix, revealing Durham's undiscovered potential," he explained. "It will inspire local people and bring real economic benefits to an area which has suffered more than most in the recent economic downturn."
The three-pronged campaign, based on activities, festivals and events, has already won a high-profile supporter. "I think Durham would make a fantastic British Capital of Culture and I hope it achieves that," said author Bill Bryson, admitting his "incredible fondness" for the "wonderful little place" whose university recently appointed him as Chancellor.
"The more time I spend in the company of the people of Durham, the more I have come to realise that there really must be something in the water here. For passion, creativity, an array of peerless assets and attractions and a palatable sense of community, Durham really is the perfect place."
The team behind Durham's bid are hoping to build on the success of cultural hotspots in the county, including the revamped Bowes Museum. Picture © Continuum
Council chiefs are plotting a period of "intense activity" to back the bid and build a united front. "By convincing our partners, residents and businesses that culture is the way forward to attract investment, increase employment and improve quality of life, we would be sending a powerful message to the judges that Durham would be a worthy winner," added Henig.
In Birmingham, Cabinet Member for Leisure, Sport and Culture Martin Mullaney revealed plans were well underway for their entry.
Birmingham Museum of Art. Picture © BMAG
"We are certainly going to bid for this and I firmly believe we have what it takes to be the UK's first City of Culture," he said.
"This is an exciting opportunity to set a new, even higher, standard, benefiting a population that is among the youngest and most diverse in the country.
"We will be working together with our partners in the cultural, private and public sectors and I am confident we can put together a fantastic package that will make us a strong contender for the title."