Coventry and the Dark Side of the City of Culture

Whilst the City of Culture scheme can build civic pride by celebrating non-metropolitan places, in Coventry it is contributing to the risk of losing what makes it unique.

7 min read

In 2018, Coventry was announced as the 3rd winner of the UK City of Culture scheme, a celebrated honorific that intends - at least on paper - to confer economic and ‘cultural’ privileges to (often) provincial and economically underfunded cities in the UK, providing them with a platform for which they are often passed over in favour of the usual suspects of London or Manchester. Examining the previous winners of the scheme - Liverpool (awarded the European Capital of Culture), Derry, and Kingston-Upon-Hull - there’s a distinct and positive tendency towards the promotion of the UK’s post-industrial centres, where there can be found a mix of idiosyncratic, working-class culture and fantastic architecture. The scheme’s success is found when it positively influences public opinion, building a civic pride that has been sorely lacking since the 1980s.

For instance, Coventry is a city of concrete, yet that concrete is often beautiful. Take the Modernist shopping precinct that spans out from the Bull Yard, a civic plaza full of space and light. Walking around Central Coventry feels markedly different from the enclosed glorified mall that is nearby Birmingham’s BullRing, and these differences are largely positive. Make no mistake: the focus is certainly still on retail, and the profit motive continues to reign supreme over the area, but an aesthetic boldness coupled with the proliferation of public space provides a bulwark against chains and brands taking total control of the area. This provision of freely and easily accessible public space is vital to the creation of convivial urban life, and Central Coventry is viewed by the likes of the 20th Century Society as a triumph of post-war civic planning.

Faced with a city centre that, in the wake of the Blitz, had been left in serious danger of collapsing completely, the architectural planning team headed by Donald Gibson forged plans for a civic-friendly Modernist rebirth. The results, whilst understandably not to everybody’s tastes, are amongst the most significant civic architectural accomplishments of the 20th Century: a municipal modernism that brought a historic city back from the brink; a concrete phoenix rising from the ashes of the city’s history. Yet this history risks being lost forever in the pursuit of profit.

As Owen Hatherley notes, “Coventry’s economic decline since the 70’s has meant that it desperately courts developers, out of terror that they don’t invest”. This is evident from the manner in which the whims of Shearer Property Group - the developer responsible for the proposed redevelopment of the city centre - and the city’s University dictate a significant amount of future town planning in the run up to 2021. The historical importance of the city’s architecture has been pushed to the margins by a council fixated on the bottom line: Coventry as the shopping destination of the future. One might expect a renewed focus on the city’s culture to provide an antidote to this retail homogenisation, but the links between ‘culture’ and gentrification - particularly when the former is prescribed by state institutions in tandem with private companies - run deep.

In a crucial piece in OpenDemocracy, Oli Mould warns how ‘culture competitions’ such as the City of Culture can be used to present gentrification in pleasant, agreeable terms, whilst turning ‘culture’ into a purely economic signifier. This is particularly evident in the framing of the scheme as a competition: at its starkest, the result determines which cities will have to limp on through 4 more years of under-investment, and which one gets to have its public spaces paved over and replaced with a mall.

At its starkest, the result of the City of Culture competition determines which cities will have to limp on through 4 more years of under-investment, and which one gets to have its public spaces paved over and replaced with a mall.

Shearer Property Group has proposed what is perhaps the most striking renovation of the city centre since the war in the form of Coventry City Centre South, which proposes a complete replacement of the Bull Yard and City Arcade with glass-and-aluminium buildings that will be home to the typical modern city centre fare of chain restaurants and luxury flats. The marketing copy informs us that “Shearer Property Group’s new proposals for CCS are designed to bring life back to the city, delivering beautiful public spaces … and a dynamic new mix of shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels, leisure options, entertainment and places to live”. The fate of William Mitchell’s Three Tuns relief - one of several pieces of exceptional public art that populate the centre of Coventry, and one of the few to enjoy listed status - remains ambiguous, with Shearer Property Group failing repeatedly to comment. Given the brazen attitude they are displaying towards the rest of the area, the chances of this piece of Coventry’s history remaining on such prominent public display are slim to say the least.

The implication that Coventry centre requires a new lease of life is based partly in truth - however, the fact that the vast majority of Coventrians live beyond the bottleneck of the ring road is likely a more significant factor in affecting the city’s evening and nightlife than the often lively Bull Yard, with its popular gay bar and broad outdoor space. But private finance capital knows no middle ground: either cities are left to rot or are encouraged to mutilate any heritage they have to create homogeneous spaces ruled by retail and landlordism. This is the Catch-22, in Neil Smith’s words1, that forces cities, and the people in them, to submit to the whims of capital.

Elsewhere, Coventry University has launched plans to attack the Civic Centre in its quest to expand the campus throughout the city. Unable to demolish the structure in its entirety due to its listing in 2017, the University has instead resorted to chipping away at its edges - demolishing the east wall and square and covering the entire building with a ‘modern’ facade. Donald Gibson and his team of architects used the Civic Centre regularly while they designed Coventry’s resurrection, and the uncertainty over its future feels loaded with heavy-handed symbolism regarding the city itself.

Concerns over the damage that these new developments threaten to inflict on Coventry’s heritage are hardly new, as indicated by a 2018 report by the Twentieth Century Society that identifies how much of the centre’s Scandinavian Modernism is set to be replaced by branding and advertising space. That the logo for Coventry City of Culture 2021 is itself a striking homage to Coventry’s Brutalist and Modernist heritage further exemplifies the strange lack of consistency that the city has towards its own appearance: happy to employ it to marketing ends, while quietly replacing it in reality.

As Coventry’s moment as the City of Culture approaches, the controversy over the future of the city’s identity establishes a dangerous precedent for the City of Culture scheme itself. Few would argue that raising the profile of neglected UK cities by foregrounding their unique architecture and artistic subcultures is anything but a noble goal. In Coventry, however, something far more sinister is happening: the mantle of the City of Culture is being leveraged by private developers in order to fundamentally change the character of the city, lining their own pockets in the process. It’s past time for an interrogation of how the City of Culture actually benefits the lives of those who have always called the city home, and whether the scheme’s use of ‘culture’ to smuggle private capital into UK cities simply represents artwashing on an institutional scale.Of course, there have been critiques, quite extensive in the case of the experience of Liverpool, though much was ‘unofficial’, in fanzines and now lost blogs, though Philip Boland’s “Capital of Culture- you must be having a laugh!” summarises some of the popular responses, and also around the implications for cultural workers of the scheme, including by Charles Umney in New Socialist, exploring the case of Hull. However, these have had limited effects on policy and responses in wherever is the next annoited city of culture.

The council, eager to welcome investment of any sort in the city, are all too happy to acquiesce to the demands of developers. The rate at which Coventry’s post-war architecture is set to be destroyed is radical even by the standards of the last ten years. The Conservative government, which has presided over the largest privatisation of the UK’s public space in living memory, now advises that existing buildings be retrofitted rather than demolished, and Coventry City Council has repeatedly ignored the concerns of heritage experts such at the Twentieth Century Society and Historic England (whom one member of the council described as “an unaccountable quango made up of non-Coventrians in tweeds and Rupert trousers”). The hatred of the council for the city it represents is evident - it has become increasingly clear that they want visitors to the City of Culture to be greeted by a synthetic shopping mall the likes of which plague most provincial towns.

The hatred of the council for the city it represents is evident - it has become clear that they want visitors to the City of Culture to be greeted by a synthetic shopping mall the likes of which plague most provincial towns.

While the outlook for Coventry may seem bleak, the damage has not yet been done. There is still time to oppose the development in the strongest possible terms, through appeals to the council and the developers and, if that proves unpersuasive, by physically protesting and preventing the uprooting of Coventry centre. Coventry’s Municipal Modernism was constructed with its people in mind, and that makes it a promising candidate for a new kind of urban centre: one that rejects its preordained future as a non-place of retail outlets and identikit luxury flats; one populated by local people living in affordable, social housing, amongst a vibrant menagerie of public art and respectfully preserved heritage buildings. That way, Coventry could make itself into a true City of Culture,and reject the vulture capitalists who want to pave over the country’s ex-industrial centres.

  1. Neil Smith. 1996. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge. p. 136. 


Luke Charnley (@lukecharnley1)

Luke Charnley is a freelance writer for New Socialist, Tribune, and Huck Magazine.