Sunderland in bottom third of heritage index – but listing ‘won’t harm City of Culture bid’

Paul Callaghan and John Mowbray outside the old Fire Station in Dun Cow Street.
Paul Callaghan and John Mowbray outside the old Fire Station in Dun Cow Street.
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City leaders say their bid to win UK Capital City of Culture for 2021 won’t be affected by a new report that puts Sunderland in the bottom third in the country for sites of heritage.

According to a heritage index which has been created by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), our city is in the bottom 30% of locations in England for interesting features in relation to its size.

The 2015 Sunderland International Air Show.

The 2015 Sunderland International Air Show.

Sunderland is in the bottom 7% for historic built environment, in the bottom 45% for museums, archives and artefacts, in the bottom 25% for parks and open space and the bottom 29% for landscape and natural heritage.

Strangely, the city is classed as being in the bottom 37% for industrial heritage, despite the area being famed for its shipbuilding and coal-mining over the past two centuries.

One crumb of comfort is that the index found Sunderland to be in the top 22% for culture and memories.

Neighbouring South Tyneside founds itself even worse off, classed in the bottom 4% of local authorities, but Hartlepool was in the top 37% however.

I’m biased and I certainly would put us higher than that, but if we were at the top of one of these tables we would not be able to go for city of culture in the first place.

Chairman of the Music, Arts and Culture Trust John Mowbray

Using over 100 data sets, the Heritage Index took a range of features into account, including nature reserves, heritage open days, archaeological groups, blue plaques and designated local foods

The RSA said the list did not aim to embarrass towns such as Warrington, in Lancashire, which finished bottom, but to demonstrate that by taking advantage of their assets they could boost their cultural capital.

The area most abundant in cultural assets was the London, enhanced by the Barbican arts centre and 201 English Heritage blue plaques.

City leaders last week launched Sunderland’s bid to be named UK Capital City of Culture for 2021 and say they disagree with the index’s findings.

A decision over whether the city is successful is set to be made in 2017.

John Mowbray, chairman of the Music, Arts and Culture Trust, which has been behind launching the culture bid, told the Echo that while he doesn’t agree with the city’s placing on the index, it should not negatively affect the bid for city of culture.

“Part of the city of culture bid is to recognise what we have got and we have quite a lot in Sunderland, but it’s also to build on that.

“I’m biased and I certainly would put us higher than that, but if we were at the top of one of these tables we would not be able to go for city of culture in the first place.

“With the bid we’re building on the strengths we have got and hopefully if they look at this in 10 years’ time we’ll be higher up.”

Councillor John Kelly, Sunderland City Council’s portfolio holder for culture, said: “More than eight million people visited Sunderland in 2014, nearly £400million was spent by visitors, and there are more than 5,000 jobs supported by tourism. There are ever improving facilities, we have hugely popular events from the International Airshow to crowd-pullers such as the Lion King and War Horse at the Sunderland Empire.

“We have exhibitions such as the BP Portrait Awards at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens or the recent Canaletto. There’s our live music scene, our Glass Centre and many award-winning parks and gardens.

“I’d suggest that Sunderland and the North East, despite funding cuts from some sources, are under-going a cultural renaissance.

“So, I think myself, and a lot of people around our city, will have a different opinion from what this survey is suggesting.”

Half of the top 20 districts in the index have a coastline, such as Cornwall, North Devon, and Scarborough, while no link was discovered between heritage and deprivation.

Jonathon Schifferes, associate director of the RSA, said: “A comparison between local areas’ heritage should generate a healthy debate about how to make the most of heritage. The Heritage Index helps – showing relative strengths and weaknesses across a broad definition of heritage, letting us see where strengths could be consolidated and capitalized upon; or areas where under-performance might be addressed.”

“The goal is a shared and richer understanding of what makes a place unique.

“In terms of industrial heritage, we have measured canals and railways which are at a European-recognised level and there aren’t any of those in Sunderland.”