Liverpool is a city in the North West of England with a population of around half a million. It used to be known for its industry, in particular for being a significant port city, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. This position was achieved largely due to the industrial revolution and trade within the British Empire. The notable decrease in the importance of Liverpool’s docs during the 20th century, together with the regression of the city’s manufacturing industry caused Liverpool’s unemployment rate to soar in the 1980s, reaching levels that were amongst the highest in the UK. Liverpool has been recovering since the mid-1990s though, thanks to the growth of its service sector.
Liverpool is culturally probably best known for The Beatles, but it actually had quite an extensive and active cultural sector even before its nomination as the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) for 2008. However, many stakeholders of the ECoC felt that Liverpool’s cultural sector did not manage to maximize its potential prior to the ECoC because its cultural institutions did not work together effectively.
In the year 2000 the Liverpool Culture Company was founded to apply for the ECoC and expanded in 2004 to plan and carry out the cultural programme. Initially the board had 40 members, but it was trimmed down to just six in order to enable more effective management. In 2004 the Culture Company had only a handful of employees, but by 2008 the number of staff had increased to around 120. The culture programme was mostly marketed and delivered successfully, which suggests that the Culture Company was staffed appropriately. Furthermore, the Liverpool City Council, together with its cultural partners succeeded in laying foundations for supporting the achieved cultural growth in the future. Evidence of this was the creation of a new Cultural Strategy until 2012, maintaining the funding for cultural organizations and plans to extend their events and public art programme for the future.
Liverpool’s ECoC programme was one of the biggest ever organized with over 7000 events during 2008, attended by more than 15 million people. According to stakeholders the programme included a good mix of high culture and more populist events. One of the biggest success factors for the programme was probably the importance and effort that was placed on public engagement. For example, all the schools in the city were included in the programme. Also, many of Liverpool’s large cultural organizations, such as the Everyman Theatre and the Bluecoat Arts Centre, were paired with neighbourhoods across the city. North Liverpool was paired with the Everyman Theatre, which significantly increased bookings from the region to the productions of the institution. Also, locations that may not always be seen as cultural were included into the programme. For example, Around the City in 80 Pints included many of the local pubs. Furthermore, over 70% of the events had free access, which helped turn around some of the negative media coverage that occurred especially before the title year.
Liverpool’s culture programme lacked a dedicated Artistic Director since 2006, and this may have been one factor as to why its programme was perhaps less innovative and consistent in including new forms of cultural expression than some previous ECoCs. However, this can be seen to have strengthened the cooperation of local cultural organizations as well as developed the skills of local cultural providers to organize events and plan activities. Moreover, Liverpool financially supported many local cultural organizations and individuals. As a result, both the national and international profile of Liverpool’s cultural sector strengthened. There is also evidence that cultural organizations now want to collaborate more with companies from Liverpool. For instance, the Everyman Theatre has stated that more people are interested in producing with it than before the ECoC. Additionally, it seems that the culture programme increased people’s pride in the city, and according to a survey 79% of respondents felt that Liverpool was a city on the rise, the highest rating in the UK at the time.
The ECoC also provided Liverpool with an impetus to improve its cultural infrastructure. Examples of such infrastructure developments included completing the city’s first concert/conference venue, the Echo Arena, and refurbishing the Bluecoat Arts Centre. Moreover, statistics suggest that the ECoC title increased tourism in Liverpool, as hotel occupancy levels increased by 6,8% from 2007 and, according to a survey, 43% of visitors had been influenced in their decision to travel by the ECoC title. It is estimated that the ECoC brought the Liverpool City Region £800 million of economic benefits, while £117 million was invested into the project. Also, the ECoC has raised Liverpool’s image in the business sector for example by making it a more attractive location for investors.
Liverpool’s main goal it wanted to achieve with the ECoC was to regenerate the city socially, economically and culturally. Promoting the European dimension was a lesser priority for Liverpool, but it nonetheless had many activities that brought together people from different countries and brought European culture to Liverpool, for example in the form of collaboration with Liverpool’s partner cities and European performers. Also, primary school children from Liverpool and around Europe collaborated for example by sharing stories from their own cities and countries. Another example of Liverpool creating international networking structures is the exchange programme between 12 youth theatre groups from around the world, as well as the Streetwaves band competition, in which the five winners toured around six European cities, and bands from these cities performed in Liverpool.
Liverpool’s original objectives for the European Capital of Culture programme were to confirm its position as a premier European city, to empower an inclusive and dynamic community and to achieve long-lasting cultural and economic benefits for Liverpool and its future generations. As stated earlier, Liverpool had an extensive culture sector already prior to the ECoC. However, with the ECoC and the changes in cultural management and cooperation in the city Liverpool managed to raise its profile as a cultural and business location both at national and international level. Liverpool attained notable economic benefits due to the ECoC and as it managed to raise its profile in the eyes of national and overseas cultural operators and investors, in addition to developing its cultural management and organization skills, the future looks bright from both a cultural and an economic perspective. Liverpool also managed to include the locals, as well as to promote the European perspective quite successfully. Extensive networking between different neighbourhoods and cultural organizations and a notable number of free events ensured that the vast majority of the locals felt they were able to access and enjoy the programme. In conclusion, Liverpool’s ECoC may be regarded a success story and it is no wonder that the pride of the locals in their city was estimated to have increased due to the culture programme. Future ECoCs should take notes.