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Key Cities: Culture, with benefits

Cllr John Merry CBE
July 21, 2021
Key Cities Chair John Merry CBE reflects on a recent roundtable discussion about culture, with valuable insights for cities and for Government.

Majestic Imp: Number 16 on the Lincoln Imp Trail (Photo © 2021 John Aron / The Lincolnite used with kind permission)

Sixteen member cities of our network gathered last week for an engaging workshop discussing cultural policy, led by our culture portfolio lead and Deputy Chair of Key Cities, Cllr. Alan Waters, the Leader of Norwich City Council. It was heartening to see that while the character and opportunities for culture are unique in each place, there was widespread consensus about the centrality of culture to cities’ recovery strategies.

What unites us with each other, and with the Government, is the knowledge that culture delivers so much more than the pleasure of a performance, or a gallery visit, or an experience – important as those are. The benefits of culture include revitalising urban centres, stimulating the creative industries, developing skills, creating jobs, inspiring innovation, building community cohesion, improving mental health, driving change, attracting investment and enabling growth. Investing in culture that connects with everyone in our cities is, in short, one of the most effective tools the Government can use to give substance to its levelling up ambitions.

In my own city, Salford, the opening of The Lowry in 2000 attracted significant wider investment and in turn led to the creation of MediaCity UK.  In Medway, culture is at the heart of placemaking, with plans to create a child-friendly city and reaching out to all sections of the community. Bradford’s Cultural Voice Forum continued supporting communities during the pandemic, with resources such as art packs for children and young people, performances for domestic abuse victims, and distributing content through online channels. Newport has successfully linked its cultural heritage to regeneration with the restoration of Britain’s oldest surviving Transporter Bridge and other projects. Lincoln’s Imp trail is engaging schools, families, businesses and visitors with a citywide public art experience rich in heritage stories. Kirklees is bidding to be City of Music in 2023 and at least four Key Cities – Medway, Lancaster, Bradford and Newport – are involved in bids for the 2025 City of Culture designation, previously held by fellow members Hull (2017) and currently Coventry.

Central to Key Cities’ approach is to develop “Cultural Compacts” – local cross-sector and civic partnerships to maximise the social and economic benefits from a thriving cultural ecosystem – which were proposed in 2019 by the independent Cultural Cities Enquiry, which was jointly sponsored by Key Cities, Core Cities and Arts Council England. Twenty of these Compacts received Government seed funding through the Arts Council, and following a successful evaluation, the Enquiry has recommended that a further 100 should be similarly supported.

Key Cities will explore how member cities can best be supported through the network, by sharing knowledge and best practice in areas such as cultural partnership-building, developing place-based cultural offers, marketing and promotion.

A meeting of the Key Cities APPG in September will discuss cultural policy with parliamentarians and senior representatives of DCMS and Arts Council England to explore how cities can best work with Government.

Funding is an important part of the picture. Supporting the proliferation of Cultural Compacts would help significantly – but to get the wide-ranging benefits that culture can deliver for economic and social recovery, there needs to be an even spread of investment in culture for all cities and towns, based on their populations and weighted to tackle deprivation.

But it is not all about money. Getting the best out of culture calls for sustained engagement between cities and different Government Departments: the Communities and Business Departments on cultural regeneration of urban centres, DCMS on stimulating the creative industries, the Health and Education Departments on mental health, wellbeing and skills.

Key Cities looks forward to building that sustained engagement, for the benefit of our populations and the country.

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