It’s time for Sunderland ‘to aim big and be unafraid’

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.
Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.
Have your say

Nil Desperandum – or never despair – are words that sit proudly on Sunderland’s coat of arms; a statement of hope when times get tough and a constant reminder that things will get better. Now, as Sunderland gets behind a bid to become the UK City of Culture 2021, Louise Bradford explores how scooping this cultural title will inject a new wave of hope into a city that still faces significant challenges when it comes to the health and wellbeing of its people.

Sunderland is a city in rude health in many ways, boasting global brand headquarters, a fierce independent arts scene and wealth of fantastic annual events. However, it faces some gloomy realities when it comes to wellbeing.

The Bridges in Sunderland is looking forward to welcoming new stores.

The Bridges in Sunderland is looking forward to welcoming new stores.

From high rates of mental health issues, to smoking during pregnancy and an obesity crisis, there are some worrying statistics that the city has to deal with.

“Sunderland certainly faces challenges – that is clear. However, we know that, through collaborative and creative work, we can begin to break down many of the city’s challenges and improve the health, wellbeing and lives of people in Sunderland,” said Rebecca Ball, Director of Sunderland 2021, which is spearheading the City of Culture 2021 bid.

“We know the benefits that would come with a successful City of Culture Bid would contribute to a happier society and one that would be increasingly active. We’d look to commission activities and exhibitions that will improve the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of our people through opportunities to get involved and be active.”

So what might this look like, if Sunderland is successful in its bid to be the next City of Culture – a title that will be awarded next year, as Hull’s 12 months in the spotlight comes to an end.

Rebecca Ball, director of Sunderland 2021.

Rebecca Ball, director of Sunderland 2021.

“The possibilities are limitless,” says Rebecca.

“It could be anything from cultural walking tours to revitalised signposting to help guide people to areas of the city.

“It could be something collaborative, working with charities that are helping tackle some of the major health challenges the city faces. It could pretty much be anything. When we submit the bid, we will have formulated a clear plan that we achieve the best outcomes, and these will be shaped by many of the groups and individuals we are working with already.”

One of the organisations hoping to see the impact of a successful bid is Sunderland Mind, an independent charity run by local people to support people in the city who have mental health issues.

Enjoying Seaburn beach.

Enjoying Seaburn beach.

Dorothy Gardiner, project manager from Sunderland Mind, said: “Mental health remains a significant issue for people in city of Sunderland.

“We believe that the way to address this is through real partnership and collaborative working, where people can receive the best care, support and quality of life as possible. We are delighted that the team at Sunderland 2021 recognise the importance of breaking down these issues, and that they will be working hard to address it through their work.

“It could have a tremendous positive impact on the health and wellbeing of thousands of people in our city.” In Sunderland, the proportion of people receiving out of work benefits due to mental health conditions is 4.6% against a national picture of 2.9%, according to figures from 2013. It’s something Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) also believe can be helped by City of Culture status.

“We know that there are some challenging health statistics in Sunderland, and we want to address them. Some of this comes back to education – and how commissions can be used to raise really important questions about what it means to live a healthy life, and to live well,” says Rebecca Ball.

“Art and culture can often break down barriers and help people to really challenge themselves about the way they live. In many cases, this could be the impetus to changing lives and dealing with some of the problems we face in the city around health and wellbeing.

“We know that alongside cure sits prevention, and often there are very different and creative ways of addressing challenges proactively. City of Culture is about just that – finding creative solutions to the city’s challenges, effectively building a stronger, brighter city, with happy, healthy people.”

One of the areas that can be supported through City of Culture are the city’s activity levels. Regionally, the North East lags behind when it comes to participation in sport and, despite having parks aplenty and a huge number of sport facilities, Sunderland follows this lead.

Councillor John Kelly, portfolio holder for wellness at Sunderland City Council, says: “We have a fantastic offer in Sunderland, with beautiful open spaces like parks and the seafront, and lots of leisure hubs across the city, so we have the capacity to be a sporting city – a city full of people with endorphins running through their body from being active and well.

“We know that physical activity has close ties with wellbeing and self-confidence, so the work of the bid in bringing together these things could be transformative in terms of public health.”

Rebecca Ball is keen to point out though that wellbeing is not just about solving problems, but is also about how people feel – it’s about happiness. She says: “We are aiming high with the bid. We believe that this should be a year of celebration. A year in which the whole city is happy, and feels like Sunderland has its moment in the spotlight.

“Sunderland has, for a long time, been a city content to stay in the shadows – a modest place with modest people, who are proud but not pushy. Sunderland has perhaps suffered a crisis of confidence, having had many of the things that made it proud stripped away. And this can often reflect in how people feel. Some communities have struggled to recover – economically and possibly emotionally – from the impact of losing the industries that defined the place. It’s time now though to move forward.”

She adds: “The city has a bright future, but we are also celebrating our rich past. As such we will be working with elderly people to capture songs, poems and stories that must be preserved for generations. These are the things that have helped form our city’s culture, have helped create a unique identity and also shaped our personalities.

“Win or lose – we believe there can be a lasting legacy of the work we are doing at Sunderland 2021.

“Taking the step to bid for this status has been a brave move for Sunderland, a city that would usually hide from the spotlight. There is a sense of confidence building in Sunderland, and that is something that will rub off on its people.

“This is about aspiration. It’s about aiming big and being unafraid. I think the bidding process itself will bring about significant change in Sunderland. And of course, winning would be the icing on the cake; it would be vindication of the collective effort of the business community and people here to build a brighter, more hopeful future for Sunderland.

“We want this bid to bring about benefits to the whole city – the young and the old; people of all different backgrounds. And that begins with raising aspirations.

“The bidding process itself is doing just that, and we are hugely excited to throw our hat in the ring, and hope the whole city and region will be keeping their fingers crossed too, for a positive outcome next year.”

NHS Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group’s clinical chair. Dr Ian Pattison, feels that opportunities that come along with the City of culture award could play a significant role in boosting morale and wellbeing across the city.

“As clinicians we know from seeing patients that there are many challenging health issues across the city and our commissioners have the statistics which confirm this. Art and culture can often break down barriers and help give people the impetus to live healthy lives. Alongside treatment sits prevention, often there are ways we can look at addressing challenges before they become a problem.

“We are pleased to see this is part of the approach that Sunderland 2021 is taking; it’s clear the bid is looking at creative solutions to the city’s challenges, and trying to build a stronger, brighter city with people at their healthiest and happiest.”

l To find out more about Sunderland’s bid to become a City of Culture and what it could mean for the area, visit or follow @Sunderland2021 on social media.