The challenge to claim the title of UK City of Culture 2021 thunders on, with five areas desperately hoping to be victorious.
Coventry, Sunderland, Stoke-on-Trent, Paisley and Swansea are all under consideration for when the winner is announced on December 7th.
All are noticeably (and rather predictably) some way outside of London and have been inflicted with industrial and social destruction during decades of ignorance and abuse.
Perhaps none more so than Stoke.
Always described as simply being somewhere between Birmingham and Manchester, the city is constantly displayed as a wasteland obsessed with a failed pottery industry and the pinnacle of the UK’s northern deprivation.
But after years of surviving in isolation and wallowing in self-pity, the area has finally started to build up its confidence thanks to investments in infrastructure and dozens of companies starting up and moving in.
Vandalised factories, holding painful memories of what the Potteries used to be like in its “glory” years, have been demolished and the city centre is on a rapid course of gentrification in order to compete with larger, intimidating, neighbouring cities.
It was this growing faith in the city that caused a 2021 bid to be announced in February, which, admittedly, I found somewhat surprising: Stoke doesn’t have any culture. It’s not going to win by talking about oatcakes and the past.
The amount of enthusiasm channelled into the project, though, is unparalleled in the last 30 years. The last creative project on this scale was the National Garden Festival on the site of the former Shelton Bar iron works in 1986, which created a huge amount of public recognition.
Many of the trees and plants remain on the site that now also contains a busy retail park, proving that well planned regeneration efforts can last long into the future.
Thankfully, Stoke’s campaign has not made the mistake of cementing itself in the past: of course, heritage is important; but being fixated on “the good old days” is counter-productive, especially in a competition that is looking for innovation.
Nightlife, architecture, literature, beauty spots and sport have all been blended into an inspiring combination with the traditional potbanks and Spitfires.
In fact, the most prominent feature of all of Stoke’s City of Culture activities is the city’s residents. Festivals, a carnival and the Face of Stoke-on-Trent project have all been developed with one eye on the title, but with the other on the lives of the locals – which is fitting, since the people is what the campaign is ultimately for.
A recent report proclaimed that success in the 2021 bid could provide 1,800 jobs and £73 million, shoring up the region’s economy for years to come. That is a honeypot that would be impossible to replace and is essential to permanently pull the Six Towns out of the smoky stench of the Twentieth Century.
The final bid submission was launched with an adventure into space – and if that’s not a metaphor for the soaring assurance of organisers and residents I don’t know what is.
Stoke has finally begun to break its insular tendencies, striding out into the centre of the national stage. What it needs now is a judges’ panel that gives an energetic standing ovation and a unanimous agreement of victory – because anything less will cause a confidence crisis that could take another 30 years to heal.