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End of Southend's UK City of Culture bid 2029 that needn't even have cost a McDonald's cheeseburger!

The definition of culture is the shared beliefs, values, attitudes and norms of a group of people. The manifestation of such is what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell all around us.

It is the filmmakers, architects, artists, teachers, politicians, musicians and chefs. But it is also the grandparents, mothers and fathers, or anyone that has an impact on the way we think, feel and act.


It is, of course, all of us within a specified group that creates the culture we live within.


Therefore, a competition based on whose culture is ‘better’ seems to be quite an impossible mission. And yet, here we are!

Whether ‘better’ is the appropriate word is questionable, but as we sense our way around Southend, where is our ‘culture’? What is it? How did it come to be? Is it good? What does it say about us? Is our culture worthy of an award?


Every society has a culture, it is just some are more cultured than others. Not sophisticated, just more depth. London is overflowing with depth. The history of the buildings. The artifacts in the museums. Almost every road has its story.


Southend has its story too, though just not one that is told that much.


According to legend, we can lay claim to such things as housing Admiral Nelson at one point in time. We have Old leigh. And of course, the world's longest pleasure pier. We have Helen Mirren (who hates Southend). We have the traditional seaside feel.

What is quite stark, is that out of our hundreds of thousands of citizens over the course of time, we have so few that could claim to be leading cultural influences of our time.

We are reaching to think we lead the way across the country, and if in some other dimension we were the cultural leaders of the UK, I would suggest the standard would be a touch mediocre.


This is not to shoot us down. A so-called rich culture does not mean we don’t have as strong values and attitudes as anyone else. Moreover, I would say that the values Southend carries are generally positive.

We are nice. Fun. Easy going. Humble. Unpretentious. Friendly and willing to help. This is a good culture and worthy of any award, but this is not the criteria.


If the city were like the Ironworks or Metal (in Chalkwell Park) then we would stand a better chance. As it is we can point to a couple of museums and art galleries, and the odd venue that offers open-mic nights.

21 on the seafront plays live music often - good. The Railway Hotel which used to play live music closed due to poor management - bad.


The seafront plays a huge part of our culture too. But are traditional seaside offerings worthy?


Our society should be built from the foundations of our waters, yet we cannot even keep the only community club going: the Southend Marine Activity Centre. Closed for years with plans to turn it into toilets.


We had the Olympics held at Garons, as well as the mountain biking in Hadleigh - good. We’ve said no to re-building the Southend Cricket pavilion - bad.


We are now banning jet-skiing and barbecues on the beach, and this comes on top of banning dog walking on the beach.

We love a drink. Southend has plenty of places to fuel madness. We seem to be good at that.


Porters, Priory Park, Southchurch Hall, Chalkwell have some interesting history that goes back a few hundreds of years.

We have great organisations such as scouts, church groups, football clubs, and outstanding volunteering groups such as One Love.


The Civic Centre is a lovely building full of a bit of history, but momentum is afoot that it will be turned into flats, with the civil service moving into Victoria Shopping Centre.


We have the Cliffs Pavilion and Palace Theatre, and in particular, the Palace enables many local people to perform there. This is a real positive.


The Garrison in Shoebury is perhaps the most historic part of Southend. Again, a real asset. A shame they are continually building over it.


Our history


We haven’t tracked ourselves. We barely realise that the name Southend originated from being geographically located at the south end of Prittlewell.

Our history is unknown to most of us. We have as rich a history as any other place, but we are not steeped in ours because no one tells it to us.


Who has any idea of the great teachers, nurses, police, or builders? We hear of the name Cecil Jones a lot, but who is he and what did he do? The most we hear of hero status is Stan Collymore helping Southend United win promotion.


We have not valued ourselves enough to write it down and tell it to our ourselves.


Porters have done an excellent job in recording the Mayors of Southend. Pictures of every Mayor adorn the walls and their names are immortalised as they are scribed onto the wall of fame. More of this would be welcomed.


Our identities are not built of Southend. It is more that we happen to be from Southend.


Shall we?


I want Southend to bid.


It will give us a chance to review what we have. We get to look in the mirror and see who we are. And we should not be afraid of what we see, as we have much to be proud of.


We should treat it like an exercise that may one day help us shape our future.


The company I work for won the Queens Award for 'Promoting Opportunity through Social Mobility' - the highest award that can be achieved by a business in the land.


Firstly, we did not go into it with the notion that it is not worth doing unless we think we are going to win.


Secondly, the cost of filling in the application was no more than my time, the person assisting, and the others that had been briefly interviewed. Where on earth they are dredging figures such as £5m is absolutely beyond me.


And for the record, we don’t have to spend the £1.5m on the bid that others have. There is a £40K grant to dip the toes for applicants who jump through the right hurdles*. In other words, it does not have to cost the council a penny. On this basis, it should be a no-brainer.

Lastly, the process gave our company the chance to look into the mirror and see what we find. As it happens, although there were areas we could work on, we were actually rather proud of what we had been doing.


It was a welcome surprise to us when we won.


It is now part of our history, and the benefits are immeasurable. We like to think King Charles's visit to Sands-by-the-Sea was inspired by our connection to the award! Certainly, Camilla eating our fish & chips was quite a coup!


Council Consultation


The councillor for Environment, Culture and Tourism had originally announced they would only press ahead after a consultation with the public.


Since then, they have pulled out altogether due to it being not the right time given the cost-of-living emergency.


This would be perfectly acceptable had it not been for the fact that it would be effectively free if they constrained the budget to the £40K grant.


Either the current administration is not aware of the grant or they are being wilfully disingenuous and compounding their view by highlighting that Hull spent £5m on their bid.


Certainly, Southend West Tory MP Anna Firth's backing has instigated boos from the Labour administration. It did not help the cause after she used the price of a McDonald's regular cheeseburger to sell it to us!

She seems to be pursuing it without the support of the council and her reasons may well be political (to win votes to be precise), yet, contrary to popular opinion, it is the right thing to do - the end of any bid would be a missed opportunity.


Cities that have won have enjoyed millions of pounds of investment and their profiles have been raised across the country.


I believe it could help Southend. It could focus minds. Find the gaps we never knew were there. Bring people together.


No doubt that a firm will be hired to put it together, and they will present a document in some uber-cool colour scheme that seeks to gloss over our warts.


If that is what happens then that would be a disappointment.


Southend must put its best foot forward, and this needs to come from Southend people who have lived and breathed our town for many decades and embodies the culture rather than having to be explained what it is.


I am with the nay-sayers who unproudly exclaim: "what culture"? I am not blind - I see it too. That is why the Southend Confelicity party exists in the first place - to fix it.

But let’s hold up that mirror and see what we find.

You never know, we might surprise ourselves - and after all, it does not even have to cost the price of a McDonald's cheeseburger!





* UK City of Culture 2025: full application guidance - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)


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