On 5th September 2017, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman took part in a Westminster Hall debate on Coventry’s bid to be the 2021 City of Culture, citing the impact of the Cathedral in the life of the city.
Dame Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate. It is exciting for all of us to know that Coventry has made the shortlist and is now in a five-way race to win this title. I declare my interest in that part of my constituency is covered by the diocese of Coventry, so I have many reasons to visit the city on a regular basis.
As the hon. Gentleman said, it is the indomitable character of the city, which rebuilt itself after terrible destruction in the second world war, that means it is a very strong contender for the designation of city of culture. As he said, the city has not just one but two outstanding universities in Warwick and Coventry, which are very much at the cutting edge of pushing the frontiers of science and technology in some of the industrial sectors in which our country leads globally. Most notably, the pursuit of driverless cars is building on the city’s great traditions in the motor industry for our country.
In my role as Second Church Estates Commissioner, particularly, I have witnessed the excellent work that Coventry cathedral undertakes. It is one of the world’s oldest religious centres. The terrible destruction of the cathedral in 1940 was a turning point in its history. Provost Howard stood in the ruins, which can be seen today, and made a Christmas day broadcast in which he pledged to make reconciliation for peace the focus of the cathedral’s work. He spoke in that broadcast about building a kinder, more Christ-like world. There could hardly be a more poignant moment to argue the case for designating as city of culture one that has such a focus on the work of reconciliation and peace. We live at the moment in such a troubled, unstable world, and Coventry has a particular mission. As the hon. Member for Coventry South mentioned, it has 200 active partners around the world, in more than 40 countries, which are committed to sharing that ministry of reconciliation.
The cathedral church itself also offers great support to the bid for the accolade of city of culture. I mean not only the ruins that remain following the second world war but the new cathedral, which is an iconic building in its own right and which hosts many cultural events, not least the concerts of our own Parliament choir. I sing with the choir, and every other year we join with St Michael’s singers from the cathedral to give a big concert. A great highlight that I will never forget was singing Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”, with Sir Thomas Allen. The cathedral, at the heart of the city, offers some of the best examples of what our country has to offer culturally. However, it is also us 0ed for other events that have nothing to do with music. I took part in a national conference about the threats that the environment faces, entitled “Reconciling a Wounded Planet”, which drew people from all over the country to come and talk about what we can do about the deleterious effects of climate change.
Coventry is a city at the heart of the country, and incredibly well connected. It is easy to get to, and it is focused on human connectedness. I think that that makes it an incredibly strong contender to be made the city of culture.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (John Glen): May I say for the first time from the Front Bench what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David? I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this important debate about Coventry’s bid to become UK city of culture in 2021, and all those right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed—particularly the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher), but also my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey).
The Hon. Member for Coventry South is a passionate advocate of the city, and this is clearly an exciting time for Coventry and the four other towns and cities shortlisted to be the next holders of the transformative and prestigious title in question. The UK city of culture programme is one of our nation’s crown jewels. The winning area must build a high-quality arts and cultural programme that reaches a wide variety of audiences and participants. The title of city of culture acts as a catalyst that can regenerate and transform a place, enabling it to attract external visitors and investment while engaging and inspiring local communities and institutions, including universities, schools, health trusts and businesses. I note the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire about its value in the wider area….
Dame Caroline Spelman: In the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who was a member of Coventry City Council, I would point out that Coventry lost out under the structure of Advantage West Midlands. The Minister has spoken about investment; does he agree that the absolute commitment of the new Mayor of the West Midlands to back the bid, and that the region should get behind Coventry’s case, should help us to win?