TAITMAIL Let’s have the High Street of Culture for Every Year

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s home affairs select committee chair, has written to the culture secretary to complain that the UK City of Culture scheme unfairly excludes towns. 

She wants a new competition, she has told Jeremy Wright: “UK Town of Culture”. She is also chair of the Labour towns group, but she’s missing the point made by the European version, the Capital of Culture, whose name allows small and large and urban (or rural) collectives of more than one to apply. It’s just careless nomenclature that makes the existing scheme exclusive.

Cooper says why not Huddersfield because of its contemporary music festival? Bridgwater because of its Guy Fawkes Night party? Colchester because of its art gallery? She’s not getting it either. 

The point that bringing culture to the fore can transform a community in both its perception of itself and by the outside world has been well made – Glasgow in 1990 was the UK’s first European capital of culture, and the consequent commercial and aestheticsuccess of the 2008 choice, Liverpool, led to the invention of the UK City of Culture of which the first was Derry, the second Hull, the third in 2021 will be Coventry. Their purpose is to bring new audiences to the arts, not overload those already committed.

That Derry was largely a failure - in that there’s little obvious legacy from 2013 - is mostly to do with big business from outside the city taking control of the thing, seeing the year as a capital development opportunity rather than a platform for cultural growth. Hull’s local authority, and the Arts Council it should be said, had much more grip so that its year became a holistic presentation with charm and humanity which engaged its own people as well as bringing visitors and investment with permanence in-built, and so is continuing to grow.

And there’s a superficiality about the current model. Because it is a competition in which candidates have to prepare for and then mostly lose, all those good ideas and bright horizons are abandoned after a couple of years of intense work: so much thought, hope and ambition wasted. 

In London the mayor has already seen the potential of creativity for communities, and last year designated a series of boroughs of culture, the first of which is Waltham Forest; on top of that he has recently named six cultural enterprise zones to be funded by partnerships between local authorities, including his own, and businesses. Other authorities around the country are watching how this cultural strategy goes, because creativity can be a big earner, already the biggest and fastest growing sector in the economy at a time when Brexit is scaring other sorts of enterprise into paralysis. But it is also a social animator.

City of culture has to be a competition to keep start-up costs down and make a national story, but what our creative industries lack is a permanent public face that doesn’t rely on winning something. They operate largely behind studio doors, unseen and unsuspected by their community neighbours. Pop-up galleries and workshops appear in former bookshops and greengroceries, but they spark for a few weeks and are gone. 

There is an opportunity now to permanently transform our high streets and make them even more relevant to their communities - Wrexham, in a microcosm, did it by using creative activity to revive a dead indoor market. Mayor Khan’s creative enterprise zones will incorporate public exhibition and activity spaces, but largely within big former office blocks. With creative funding partnerships between central and local government and private businesses, special leases and reduced business rates, our high streets can thrive again, but no longer as mere retail centres. They could give live entertainment, participatory workshops, festival activities, art exhibitions, comedy, even circus, all related to creative operations behind the scenes, and co-ordinated by local creative enterprise leaders. 

If 1% of the £100bn a year the creative industries earn this country could be hypothecated to what we could label our Creative Highs, we’d never sigh for Marks and Spencer or Toys R Us again as we fill our community centres with art in all the manifestations we are so adept at, and Brexit becomes irrelevant. 

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