Cultured high streets could save our communities

Cultural organisations set in our high streets will play an important role in our communities’ post-Covid recovery, says Arts Council England.

Two new surveys published today by ACE show that three-quarters of our cultural buildings are either on or within a five-minute walk of our main shopping streets.

A data report by Ordnance Survey analysing both its own experimental high street data and a survey of ACE-funded cultural infrastructure also shows how culture is creating jobs in local economies – over 300 cultural venues are in unemployment hotspots – and that they provide much needed public amenities such as cafes, bars and bookshops.

This comes alongside an ACE-commissioned report, Arts and Place Shaping: Evidence Review, that shows growing evidence of culture revitalising the high street and supporting local economies.  Cultural organisations, says the report, help build civic pride; increase footfall in high streets even when retail is failing; repurpose vacant buildings; and create sound employment.

“An investment in culture is an investment in our high streets” said ACE’s CEO Darren Henley. “Theatres, music venues, museums and libraries are the beating hearts of their communities. They’re central to the social fabric and civic pride of towns across England. As well as events and performances for audiences of all ages, they provide a raft of local amenities from bars to bookshops, helping to bring our high streets alive, providing jobs and boosting the economy.”

The Arts Council is also supporting a four year country-wide cultural programme through the High Streets Heritage Action Zones scheme. The programme – run by Historic England, in partnership with National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England – is inviting artists, creatives and cultural organisations to help transform high streets and help people feel proud of where they live.

The Churchill Theatre and Library, a key part of Bromley High Street in South London

The scheme funds local cultural consortia on each high street to programme their own cultural activities across the four years and a series of national commissions, run by Historic England, that celebrate the high street and its role in our lives. Details on the cultural programme will be announced later this week by Historic England.

“As we begin our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic it will be vital to protect and rebuild public spaces and encourage people to get back out to responsibly support our local businesses, town centres and creative industries” said Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley. “The work of Empty Shop, the Northern School of Art and Hartlepool Borough Council shows how the region is thinking creatively to support culture by bringing art to local people, backing our high streets and making the Tees Valley an even better place. Innovative projects such as this will boost consumer confidence and, ultimately, safeguard and grow jobs and the economy.”

The main image shows Hartlepool’s historic Church Street where a partnership between Hartlepool Borough Council, the Northern School of Art and the Church Street Heritage Townscape project is establishing a residency kick-starting a range of platforms and opportunities for creative practitioners.

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