City scope: putting culture alongside housing

Last week we brought you the report of the Cultural Cities Enquiry which could shift the base of arts funding in this country. But what does it mean? Jonathan Todd, chief economist at BOP Consulting, was part of the research team that led the UK-wide consultation process and provided the year-long enquiry with its essential data

Working on projects across the UK, BOP Consulting knows the difference culture makes. It was exciting to serve as research partners to the Cultural Cities Enquiry, as this initiative involved cultural impact being taken seriously by high-profile figures from outside the cultural sector.

From property to politics, hospitality to heritage, higher education to professional services, a wide range of sectors brought diverse expertise to the board of the Cultural Cities Enquiry. This insight was complemented by a public consultation and a series of roundtables convened by BOP up and down the country.

The enquiry reported last week with an overwhelming conclusion that cultural activities bring enormous benefits to our cities and their people across the UK – and there is potential for culture to achieve more. Four ingredients were identified as being required to bring this about: leadership, investment, place and talent.

Leadership has been demonstrated on City of Culture projects – for example, Glasgow as European Capital of Culture back in 1990. Before Glasgow, cities chosen by the European Capital of Culture Programme (e.g. Athens, Paris, Florence) were selected more in acknowledgement of their past cultural achievements, as oppose to their potential. Glasgow was the first city to use the year in a way that was integrated with their longer-term regeneration and economic strategy.

While this template has since been replicated, new leadership is required to further disperse these benefits. The enquiry proposes the City Compact for Culture, bringing together local partners with a shared interest in maximising the civic role of culture. Compact partners will include business, universities, local authorities, the cultural sector and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), and will pledge to align focus around key goals.

Attracting new investment into culture is likely to be central to these goals. The enquiry, chaired by a senior figure from the financial services industry, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, proposes numerous steps to further grow this investment, including exploration of new fiscal measures, such as enhanced Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and/or tourist levies. With the Scottish government consulting on a tourist levy, this is an idea whose time has come, while enhanced BIDs would create mechanisms for more of the tax uplift generated by culture to be retained and reinvested locally. 

The kind of cultural activities that are successful enough to generate tax uplifts can, though, be victims of their own success – physically displaced and priced-out by the more mainstream activities that follow gentrification. The focus of the enquiry upon place aims to unlock more of these successes, while enabling culture to benefit from this success rather than suffer from it.

This place-based ambition also links to city compacts. These should, the enquiry argues, support the establishment of portfolio approaches to cultural property assets. These asset portfolios should maintain civic, community or cultural sector ownership of property to enable returns to be recycled. In addition, compacts should also ensure that cultural activity is prioritised within city spatial plans, and that planning policy, licensing and business rates are in alignment to help enhance the cultural estate.

Cultural success, however, depends upon talent. For culture to release the potential of all people in our cities, the cultural workforce should better reflect the diversity of our communities, and cities could be more strategic about nurturing talent for the creative industries.

The enquiry notes that in the creative industries, workers are 40% more likely to be from higher socio-economic backgrounds than the UK average. It seeks to improve upon this by recommending cultural organisations set self-determined targets for diversity of their leadership teams and boards, within the context of local demographics and their artistic mission.

In doing so, these targets would unlock the talents of individuals that would otherwise be unfulfilled. To these people, this would, of course, be life-changing. Ultimately, however, the ambition of the enquiry is bigger than this: Not simply to create new purpose for individuals, but for places.

As we approach three years since the referendum of June 2016, the UK remains, to say the least, uncertain about its direction. Many places within the UK, especially those that can feel like their best days are behind them, have endured a diminished sense of purpose for much longer.

The solutions are as multi-faceted as the causes are complex, but culture has a part to play in confronting these big civic challenges, in building pride in our past, optimism in our future, and joy in our present. Something that can bring this to our communities deserves to be considered alongside transport, housing and energy as vital to our civic infrastructure.

The Enquiry aims to lift culture to this status. This attempt has been dismissed by some as instrumentalism, but the problems facing the UK, as well as the potential role of culture in finding solutions, are too big for culture to remain a civic bystander.


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