TAITMAIL The last word in the North should be a local one

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It’s probably not entirely surprising that, amid all the rancour and rumour of Partygate and the continual speculation about the future of Boris, an important contribution to the debate about levelling up the North of England should be almost entirely ignored by the media.

Apart from a piece in the Guardian and a short article on the political website PoliticsHome, not to mention coverage in the always-on-the-ball columns of Arts Industry, there was zilch, zero, nada about a detailed plan for transforming the place of culture in the North and embedding arts and heritage in the levelling-up agenda. Odd that, when you consider the importance that the government claims is its most important focus after sorting out Covid.

But the attention span of the national media when it comes to the juxtaposition of the North and culture is strictly limited. With a few notable exceptions, cultural coverage in newspapers and broadcast media is London-centric. Take any of their annual round ups of the highlights of the previous year in the arts. The best theatre productions, best concerts, best exhibitions are, apparently, all to be found within a few miles of Charing Cross. Year after year this astonishing coincidence goes unacknowledged. 

Of course, it may be something to do with the fact that critics rarely manage to travel to any other parts of the country, particularly those which might require a train journey. Challenged on this they would claim that tight editorial budgets do not include travel costs. Frustrated press officers from our leading cultural institutions which had the misfortune to be located north of Watford often had to resort to offering to pay the critics’ travel costs to their opening nights.

While we are on the subject of cultural critics, one of the oddities of cultural coverage in the media is the fact that all the attention goes on the final product. The film, the play, the concert, the dance, the paintings, the sculptures seem to arrive fully formed and ready to be analysed and appreciated. There is some interest in the life stories of the creators of course. Their route to the West End stage or gallery is examined and mined for some “rags to riches” tale or evidence of obstacles overcome. 

Essentially, though, the story is all about individual talent and occasional genius. What is not part of the narrative is the environment in which that talent or genius was nourished. Search any biography of a talented artist and you find a teacher, a school, a club, a volunteer organisation that acted as seedbed and greenhouse, catalyst or cheerleader, motivation or inspiration for the career that was to come.

In a nutshell, it’s this ecology of culture that is often ignored in media coverage of the creative industries. Compare this absence with how the mainstream media reports other businesses – whether it's cars or computers - when many column inches are devoted to funding, seed money, public and private partnerships, skills shortages etc. 

So it’s against this background that the All-Party Parliamentary Group published their report calling for a complete rethink of cultural investment in the North of England.

They have produced a 10-point plan to ensure that culture plays a key role in levelling up as part of regeneration plans for cities and towns in the area. The Case for Culture is full of useful ideas. They include a creative education curriculum across all stages of education, new cultural apprenticeship schemes, a skills survey to grow cultural production in the North and retain and retrain creative talent. And there are demands for improved access and digital inclusion for disadvantaged groups.

Much of it is based on written and oral evidence from over a hundred artists, creators, actors, musicians and political leaders from across the North and they make some vital points.   Sage Gateshead, for example, says access to creativity and creative careers will only be achieved when we stop “viewing the arts and culture as recreation, rather than as a career”.

Another respondent said, "We need to address cultural value as a whole, broaden the understanding of what type of jobs are available in the North and end the idea that ‘I must move south to be a creative’ and combat the idea that cultural production is ‘not a proper job’”. 

But two of the most important proposals are for genuine devolved decision-making in funding and improved collaboration between cities and regions. The Case for Culture makes it abundantly clear that the structures are now in place for such decisions to be taken away from Whitehall and national agencies. Metro mayors and local authorities understand the infrastructure needs of their communities far better than people based in London. 

Furthermore, the culture of competitive bidding simply entrenches the powers of the centre – allowing officials, whether based in the Treasury or the DCMS, or Gove’s Levelling Up ministry, the final say in who gets funding. The report wants to replace this with a collaborative structure which sees mayors, councillors and local arts practitioners working together. 

That collaboration is already evident in the cross-party consensus that created the report in the first place. If Red Wall Tory MPs and Labour stalwarts can agree on what’s needed, then why on earth should Whitehall and Westminster panjandrums have the last word? 

Image shows Burnley’s The Singing Ringing Tree sound sculpture by Anna Liu and Mike Tonkin

Posted in Features