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Culture and Place in Britain – Why a healthy cultural offer and a community’s economic wellbeing go hand in hand

Cllr Alan Waters, Culture Lead for Key Cities and Leader of Norwich City Council
April 10, 2023
Millions of us value cultural activities, whether that’s going to the theatre, watching a film or live music, visiting an art gallery or simply sitting down in a local library and reading a book. Yet culture goes beyond feeding our souls; its presence can positively impact a community’s economic wellbeing.

This aspect often gets lost, but a new Key Cities report, Culture and Place in Britain, highlights the correlation between low cultural engagement and deprivation, and calls for a more inclusive approach to stimulating our economies.

By looking at what culture means to Key Cities’ 27 member cities and beyond, and how this translates into public funding programmes, Culture and Place in Britain shines a light on the role culture can play in boosting places and supporting local people.

Key to the success of efforts to harness the power of culture more effectively is cooperation. Cooperation between communities, cultural organisations, anchor institutions and stakeholders in our cities. Cooperation with each other, and with towns and cities across the country. Cooperation with funding bodies and government across all relevant policy areas.

Harnessing cross-sector partnerships across all institutions via cultural compacts is a tried and tested way of achieving this.

Of interest to many of those cooperating across urban areas is the potential for culture to have a positive impact in areas of deprivation. A 2017 study in New York said the reason for culture’s capacity to bring light to dark corners was that it was “one of the elements of a life one has reason to value”.

Research closer to home, published in BMJ Open, suggested such engagement – such as going to see theatre shows, gallery visits and visiting heritage sites – has been associated with improvements in wellbeing, slower declines in cognition, reduced levels of isolation and loneliness, enhanced social wellbeing in the community and lower mortality rates.

But while the social benefits are clear, financing such activities has proved more complex. Since 2010 most local authorities have witnessed cutbacks to their finances. Data published earlier this year showed that investment in the arts in England through local authorities in capital and revenue expenditure fell by more than 30% in real terms between 2009-2010 and 2019-2020, in response to an overall decline in local government budgets.

Given these constraints, there has to be a clear vision about what culture means and what it can do locally. And the funding criteria of arm’s-length bodies such as Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund, through which funding is channelled, must be the keystone of any place-based strategies.

At a local level many Key Cities and other local authorities have already developed strategies – often with support from Arts Council England – setting out their vision for culture and how it relates to their wider place strategy. There is no requirement to have a culture strategy, but if a place lacks a compelling story of what culture is doing locally, it is all the harder to convince other stakeholders to invest their resources, to connect culture into the wider place strategy, or link it with the strategies of a combined authority or local enterprise partnership.

Whether it’s a formal strategy or not, without a considered vision places will find it that much harder to make a compelling case to government for levelling up funding for culture.

There is meanwhile considerable interest in ‘creative clusters’, a network of experts in cultural development. At Key Cities we identified 709 creative ‘microclusters’ located across the UK. There is evidence that those local authorities which are bold and ambitious about the role that creative and cultural sectors can play in regenerating local places can use these as the basis for local regeneration. Importantly, such solutions need to reflect, and come from, local communities. If the aim is to do something for a place, it should clearly be ‘of’ the place.

Supporting such local clusters is vital. A range of initiatives started by Key Cities’ members have been designed to do this, requiring big thinking and bringing along all parts of the community. Local authorities are well-placed to do this through supporting creative and cultural organisations in placemaking, and mechanisms such as offering former retail spaces for very low ‘peppercorn’ rents to grassroots and community-led arts organisations.

The role culture can play in both social and economic regeneration is widely acknowledged. It is now time to act.

Original article published on on 3rd April 2023.

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