Culture-led regeneration in an age of austerity

2012 is shaping up to be an interesting year for culture in the UK. The 2012 Olympics and Cultural Olympiad are providing a welcome boost to attention and spending on culture and sport, but these are offset by continuing austerity, economic gloom and some rather Dads Army-esque political shenanigans over pasties, grannies and gay marriage. It would be easy to write culture off as a luxury of the past, no longer relevant in a time of such economic and political uncertainty.

I started the year with a lot of questions about the impact of culture on regeneration. I wanted to know if local communities have really benefited from investment in culture, or that is a myth perpetuated by regeneration professionals? Armed with what I thought was a fair bit of experience and information, I put out a plea for thoughts and case studies through various networks to find out what had been done and how well. I was overwhelmed by the response, and had clearly struck a chord.

What I’ve found is that cultural investment has dramatically different impacts in different places: Larger investment does not necessarily create larger impact, particularly if it doesn’t form part of a wider attack on socio-economic problems. There’s also the risk that the medicine can endanger the patient’s life: If local communities aren’t properly consulted, local buy-in will not happen and a so-called ‘iconic’ gallery or museum can turn out to be an expensive white elephant, blighting both townscape and reputation.

It’s clear that one man’s culture is another man’s poison, making it hard to define culture in regeneration terms: A broad assumption is that it is something which grows from within a neighbourhood or social grouping. So why do many regeneration projects invest in the arts, only to remove skateboarders and street artists from their public spaces, or supplant small independent shops to make way for new developments? It’s a sort of cultural cleansing. Anna Minton’s ‘Ground Control’, which looks at the creeping privatisation of public space, cites the example of how a whole area of quirky, creative businesses was cleared to make way for Liverpool One, the major mixed use development which, coincidentally, opened in 2008, Liverpool’s  European City of Culture year. But culture should surely be a broad church – it’s what makes places distinctive and is by its nature inclusive and diverse. It’s important for a neighbourhood’s self-esteem, and it’s vital in attracting the new blood so crucial for its long-term survival.

Looking at success stories where culture has played a part in regeneration, here’s what I see as some important factors, and we’re not talking high level investment:

  • Cultural diversity is vital: Whitby’s numerous festivals, Folkestone’s Triennial, Lincolnshire’s Bathing Beauties (Mablethorpe) and SO (Skegness and other nearby towns) festivals are just a few great examples of using a variety of activities to attract and include locals and visitors. Recent figures show a rise in interest in smaller, local festivals, in contrast to a decline in support for larger, commercial events.
  • Local communities should lead cultural development: We need to go back to developing culture from within. Build on local knowledge and keep money circulating in the local economy. The role of professionals should be to support and structure the process, not impose their idea of culture from outside.
  • Understand that culture isn’t a one-trick pony: Margate’s Turner Contemporary or Wakefield’s Hepworth Gallery are great buildings and have raised the profile of their towns but will not be sustainable unless they really stimulate local creative businesses and engage with the community. They are part of the mix, not a golden bullet.
  • Be prepared to play the long game: Scarborough’s success has largely been based on attracting cultural players over many years, but relatively modest public investment has created transformational change through attracting significant private investment. Likewise, social housing provider Bolton at Home has been running a Housing Percent for Arts programme since 1998 which has contributed to both improved health and business investment in a disadvantaged area of the north-west

The government’s straitened circumstances could, perversely, stimulate more of this modest, incremental, but ultimately more successful culture-led regeneration, if for no other reason than there is no alternative. The absence of one major funder in the mix can potentially open up the game to others, creating a more diverse, democratic ownership of the process. Return on investment, both social and financial, will be smarter and more relevant to local conditions, as it should be.

Culture is an important part of regeneration, and will continue to be so. But the flagship cultural developments seen over the past two decades are likely to be a thing of the past, replaced by local buy-in and modest, incremental gains which last. What we now need to do is be smarter, leaner and more democratic in order to build on the rich culture we already have. I think 2012 could be a good one – the year we turned the corner towards a more bottom-up approach to culture and regeneration.


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