The god of small dreams?

Dream not small dreams, Gordon Brown told the party faithful in his conference speech this week.

He might have wanted to expand his point a bit with his business secretary, Lord Mandelson. Lord Mandelson’s agenda – and it’s a laudable one – is to get Britain out of recession, create new jobs and save businesses.

But there are different ways of doing that. And a narrow focus on jobs and business could undermine some of the longer term thinking about regeneration and placemaking that’s been developed over the last decade.

Those tensions were brought into sharp focus at the start of the Yorkshire Expedition, a cultural tour of Yorkshire designed to inform thinking about strategies for the visual arts.

Jan Anderson, executive director for environment at Yorkshire Forward, explained the difficulties of arguing for investment in arts and creativity in the current climate.

Whitehall, she said, wants proof that any investment is creating jobs and stopping businesses from going under.

Yorkshire Forward has a 25-year vision of renaissance and creating ‘great places’. You can’t always demonstrate that a piece of public art or a studio or improvements to a town centre will hit the short term targets. But creating places where people want to live and work and have children are more likely to bring jobs and businesses that last.

So, for example, Yorkshire Forward has been pumping money into the ‘visitor economy’ – part of that process of placemaking that generates opportunities. Civil servants have objected because it doesn’t deliver immediate results. Regional officials are being forced to go away and make a better ‘economic case’.

This kind of debate misses the point: it isn’t the economy, stupid, but it’s people. Invest in people and they create a vibrant economy. Invest in the things people value – places they enjoy, activities they appreciate, opportunities they can explore – and the economy will grow.

Chris Murray, head of the Core Cities Group, is someone who gets it. ‘What’s really critical for the future success of cities is quality of place, quality of life, culture, tolerance and diversity,’ he said.

This isn’t new – it’s the Richard Florida agenda – but in a world where people have choices and mobility it’s essential to understand that people make towns and cities, and have a choice about which towns and cities they make.


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