People walking in Newcastle-upon-Tyne near the bridge

British Council

November 2021 

As Core Cities and the British Council release jointly commissioned research on the soft power assets of UK cities, Insight takes a closer look at the findings. We consider what UK cities mean for our international connections and what role they can play in fulfilling the ambition to become a truly Global Britain.

As Core Cities and the British Council release jointly commissioned research on the soft power assets of UK cities, Insight takes a closer look at the findings. 

Over half of the world’s population live in cities and that proportion is set to grow to 66 percent by 2050. Cities matter because of the dynamism and energy they hold. By virtue of being places of cultural flows and transactions, cities also have a crucial role in developing cultural understanding internationally. Will Haynes notes in an essay for the Cultural Relations Collection

‘In cities, diverse peoples and communities come together and forge relationships – forming, sharing, preserving and creating all sorts of identities.’ 

Haynes also refers to cities as ‘inspiring centres of culture’. A new report based on research carried out by Tom Fleming Consultancy looking at the cultural assets of the 11 UK metropolitan areas (excluding London) analyses their role in building better relationships. It examines how cities have leveraged these assets internationally to develop an enhanced social, economic and cultural value for the country. 

Assets include: 

  • universities and education and cultural institutions
  • international businesses
  • sports, events and festivals
  • film locations, historical icons 
  • architecture, natural and heritage landscapes
  • personalities (for example, artists, sportspeople, politicians, innovators, entrepreneurs).

As well as generating value nationally, UK cities can also be a powerful mechanism for presenting the UK on the international stage. They have a vital role to play in supporting the UK Government’s ambition to project a positive, proactive and proud vision of the UK globally. 

The report suggests that more productive, more highly performing and more internationally connected cities could help make the UK a more equal and prosperous country. Many UK cities already have strong links to other cities across the globe, such as through tourists, diaspora populations and international students. 

These global connections and networks play a vital role in driving global perceptions, which in turn drive decisions on investments, partnerships, and international co-operation.

To achieve these international and domestic policy goals the report emphasises:

  • the importance of a collective voice and the need to address the challenges currently faced when implementing a soft power strategy for cities 
  • that ‘levelling up’ will be most effective if all of the UK’s dynamic cities and regions as well as towns, are supported and enabled to make the local, national, and international connections in science, innovation, creativity, and knowledge sectors that contribute so much to the shared prosperity of the UK
  • the role of the British Council in building global connections with and for every region and nation of the UK, particularly around shared global challenges 
  • the significance of international and national city connections to both COVID-recovery and regional growth and renewal.

Learning from experience


One example of how a city has helped with COVID recovery is the Greater Manchester-China creative exchange, which has moved online since COVID-19. This was built on a 2019 British Council co-commissioned report which developed and strengthened Manchester’s approach to creative collaboration with cities in China. 


In partnership with International Newcastle (IN), the British Council has supported the city’s ‘Our Newcastle Our World’ international relations plan. This develops and enhances international opportunities, connections and experiences for people and organisations in Newcastle, and celebrates and promotes diversity and intercultural awareness in the city.

Our partnership has enabled IN to position itself as a strategic international hub for Newcastle, creating and driving delivery of its international action plan, and building networks and alliances of private and public sector partners to pilot city-wide and regional initiatives while leveraging support from national and international organisations.

By working with IN, Newcastle City Council and local teachers, the British Council has taken a new approach to encourage applications to the UK’s Turing Scheme. As well as supporting new international partnerships and positive curriculum outcomes for the teachers and schools, hundreds of local children and young people, who have never been able to afford to travel, will have life-changing experiences. These will impact on their learning, perceptions and aspirations. So far, 48 per cent of Turing places are going to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Ten schools, most of which had no international school partners and had never accessed funding for international visits before, were successful in applying for £400,000 for visits abroad in 2022.  Teachers and pupils will be supported to build relationships in the run-up to the visits and beyond. It is hoped that their experiences will encourage other schools across the city to engage in new international partnerships and apply for the British Council’s International Schools Award.

The Express Yourself North East Festival of Languages in March 2021 used language learning as a path to improving skills, career opportunities, cultural awareness and greater access to international experiences. The festival engaged schools and communities across 95 events, with 12,000 children and young people and 1,000 adults taking part.


The British Council and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (LCRCA) have convened an International Strategy and Delivery Group (ISDG) for the past two years. 

The ISDG aims to embed an international outlook and global engagement across the city region’s social, educational, and cultural organisations. 

It works alongside other city regions, local authority strategies, boards and networks to co-ordinated approaches to leveraging Liverpool’s cultural assets and setting its international ambitions.

With British Council funding, the ISDG commissioned research to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of the cultural offer on residents and communities and international students. The research also examined the demand for a compelling cultural offer and the city’s international visitor profile. 

The research provided a practical insight into the city region’s strengths, assets, and opportunities, which have been used to take forward a set of actions:

  • Collaboration with LCRCA to identify priority cities and countries, allowing greater coordination and cross-promotion during visits and delegations. 
  • A coordinated international student welcome offer from September – December 2021. This includes more than 40 events, encompassing national heritage sites, grassroots organisations, major galleries, and a premier league football club. 
  • Collecting case studies of best practice, to spur on greater international ambition across the cultural sector. 

The power of strategy and collaboration

These examples demonstrate the desire of cities and city regions to better understand their cultural assets, to collaborate across sectors and take a strategic approach to leveraging their soft power. Although outcomes are still emerging, indications are positive and have led to greater co-ordination and cross-sector collaboration.

'Although nations have a clear enabling role, these are complex issues that require place-based solutions and are increasingly solved by networks of cities working together nationally and internationally'.

Both individually and jointly, cities and wider city regions can and do play a transformational role for the UK, as it seeks to establish a progressive international role based on exchange, trust and mutually beneficial relations. The cities’ education, arts and culture offer, and connections are at the heart of these efforts.

The blend of civic leadership and brokerage, heritage assets, cultural vibrancy, dynamic creative economies, world-leading universities, sporting beacons and increasingly diverse talent, mean the UK Core Cities have a compelling offer to support the UK’s efforts to step up on a global stage.

The Core Cities report provides new and useful insight by mapping and understanding UK cities’ soft power strengths and intangible influence capabilities, as well as the potential of working together, both inter-city and city-to-city, to benefit the UK’s soft power and prosperity. 

These connections build long-term, trusted relationships across the world with allies, future partners, and those with whom it is harder for the UK to have a government-to-government relationship. These soft power assets create a positive platform for influence, attraction, and co-operation to support the UK’s trade, security and wider foreign policy objectives.

The value of the soft power assets of UK cities and city regions to the UK’s international standing should be kept firmly in mind as the UK implements the Integrated Review and moves to a new era in its relations with the rest of the world. 

Tania Mahmoud, Cities Programmes Lead, British Council and Anna Duenbier, Policy Analyst and Advisor, Research and Policy Insight, British Council 

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