After narrowly losing out on the UK City of Culture bid, the town’s enthusiasm for cultural renewal is undimmed

When Louisa Mahon talks about ‘scaffolding’, it’s a deliberate metaphorical twist on a word normally associated with the erecting of metal uprights and boardwalks. Mahon, the Head of Marketing at Renfrewshire Council, is trying to convey the sense of ‘support’ being put in place to position Paisley as a national events hub, despite its recent painful – and very public (the competition results aired on BBC One’s The One Show at the beginning of December) – failure to become the UK City of Culture for 2021.

Rather than taking its medicine, the town, which is famed for its eponymous weave, stands on the brink of an ambitious and farreaching rejuvenation, much of which is based on a multi-million pound investment in infrastructure but also a recognition that events can help drive a fresh sense of purpose and, crucially, visitor numbers.

“We’ve got a programme confirmed for 2018 in terms of events and we may be announcing two new events into that schedule,” says Mahon. “One is a festival which would be coming in May, the other is an opera which would be taking place in June; it is very much about being committed to bringing in more events in the scaffold phase and we’re still going ahead with that.”

She adds: “As from today we have gone back into the Paisley Partnership [a private/public/third sector organisation convened to support the bid] and we have agreed that we will continue on as a board to focus on a new programme of activity to 2022 which will allow Paisley to realise as many of its ambitions that we had in the bid as possible. We’ve gone into a period of consultation to bring our cultural and creative communities together in February to say ‘okay, this is what we were proposing to do in terms of programming to build a vibrant cultural and creative sector and bring in new events’.”

UK CITY of Culture bidders tend to be places which have lost their way; previously prosperous trading posts or centres of manufacturing excellence which have fallen inexorably into post-industrial decline. In recognition of that fact, the awards were convened under the last Labour government in 2009 and the first winner was Derry in 2013; the media spotlight and government injection of cash raised Derry’s profile both domestically and internationally, and the same can be said for Hull – 2017’s UK City of Culture – which has generated £60m for the local economy, attracting 3.5m visitors and staging 2,000 events.

Whilst Paisley will inevitably not benefit from the same media profile, the plans to stimulate interest and investment through events looks set to continue apace. “We’re heartbroken not to win,” adds Mahon. “But I think it has totally regalvanised the spirit of Paisley and the spirit of partnership that exists here. The actual process itself has been so huge in terms of how we profiled the place, so there can only be good out of it; we always said the journey would continue no matter what the outcome and I think what’s galvanised us over the past couple of weeks has been the massive outpouring from the community.”

There is a strong chance that the financial backing for Paisley’s events plans will also continue unabated. More than 200 business backers have already ploughed over £300,000 in sponsorship money into the town’s coffers to support events in those ‘scaffold years’; the council is hoping Arts & Business Scotland will match fund the sponsorship generated and there are infrastructure plans in the pipeline.

JEAN CAMERON, who grew up in Paisley, led the town’s bid (prior to that she was responsible for the international strand of Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games cultural programme and has produced Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art) and is expected to stay on in the role for a short time leading on ‘legacy projects’ stemming from the process. She has a well-established pedigree for events and highlighted how the process of bidding had led to a genuine transformation of her home town’s fortunes when she presented at the recent National Events Conference at the University of Strathclyde’s Technology Innovation Centre just days before Coventry, against bookies’ odds, was announced as winner for 2021.

“Bidding has already been a really positive experience for us; it’s raised our profile and given a newfound sense of confidence locally. After years of knocks the people of Paisley are talking our town up again,” she told delegates.

One of the main bid legacies is the £1m Renfrewshire Culture, Heritage and Events Fund – set up to help local groups build capacity and work with national and international talent. Partnerships are already in place for 2018 with national agencies including Scottish Opera and the National Theatre of Scotland. The council is also spearheading a £110m investment in cultural venues and town centre improvements including a £42m revamp of Paisley Museum and £46m set aside for other venues, such as Paisley Town Hall and Arts Centre.

Between 3,500 and 4,000 pipers and drummers from across the UK and abroad compete at The British Pipe Band Championships; All images © Gibson Digital 2016.

More than £7.7m is also due to be invested into the St James Playing Fields, for new facilities and an outdoor event space. Mahon says: “The British Pipe Band Championships will be at St James this year, moving to another park down the road for 2019 and then back in 2020. That’s going to the site for music festivals and a new festival we’re developing at the moment; St James’ is fantastic in terms of accessibility. This will put in the infrastructure that allows events to come along and ‘plug in’, basically. We’ve had DF Concerts and Regular Music involved in that consultation so we’re pretty confident that what we’re going to deliver on the ground is going to be fantastic.”

She adds: “Our investment programme starts almost imminently and we’re currently recruiting the team that will come on to project manage those infrastructure developments; then it’s full steam ahead, including the refurbishment of the museum, which will be absolutely huge for us.” She says: “We’re quite confident that that pump priming will still generate investment and we also have the City Deal investment that’s taking place and that’s £273m worth of infrastructure (Renfrewshire’s share of the Glasgow City Region Deal) – so rail links, bridges, and an investment package at the airport which has the potential to leverage up to 10,000 jobs over the next decade. In terms of a public sector investment it’s not just taking place in relation to events and cultural venues, it’s actually across the board.”

HIGHLIGHTS OF Paisley’s events programme in 2018 will include the only UK start leg of the prestigious international Monte Carlo Classic Rally, which sees up to 100 vintage vehicles gather outside Paisley Abbey before setting off for France in January; a self-generated event, the Paisley Food Festival, created in 2015 to showcase the best of Scottish produce, will run alongside the long-established Paisley Beer Festival (run by Renfrewshire CAMRA and Scotland’s largest of its kind) in April.

The British Pipe Band Championships, run by the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association, and one of the ‘majors’ in the piping calendar, was brought to Paisley for three years from 2016-18, and recently confirmed it will stay through 2019-21. The free event, which runs in May, saw an estimated 19,000 visitors in 2017 and delivered a £290,000 boost to the local economy. The unusually titled ‘Weave and Sma’ Shot Day’ is one of the world’s oldest workers’ festivals and celebrates Paisley’s heritage of textile-making and political activism.

Weave was added to the events programme in 2017 as a weekend-long ‘wraparound cultural programme’ as part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology and will continue in 2018 in July. The Scottish Album of the Year Award takes place in Paisley Town Hall in August and in October the flagship arts festival Spree takes places over ten days across various venues, including a speciallyerected Spiegeltent. The Winter Festivals programme kicks off with the Halloween Festival – named by the Daily Telegraph as one of the Top 20 Halloween events in the UK – followed by Fireworks and Christmas Lights, each of which brings crowds of around 25,000 into the town centre.

2017 also saw Paisley host the MG Alba Scottish Trad Awards, and the town has been confirmed to host the Royal National Mòd – the largest Scottish Gaelic literature, song, arts and culture festival in Scotland – in either 2021 or 2022.

IN ADDITION to the events activity the council is working on a new cultural strategy to underpin its events offer; the strategy will focus heavily on leadership and capacity across the town’s cultural and creative sectors but crucially will also try and embrace the grassroots promoters and producers so it doesn’t end up as a top-down diktat with no local buy-in.

Mahon says: “That was always part of the bid: how do we develop a really robust cultural and creative ecology so that our capacity is to deliver cultural excellence and to deliver great events – events that are rooted in the community and that deliver health and wellbeing but that also have the capacity to draw visitors. For us it’s always been about this multitude approach; events that promote cultural participation. Events that improve health and wellbeing, and have social impact and then events which really raise the profile of our place and generate economic impact.”