How can culture engineer the levelling-up agenda?

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What interventions, partnerships and investments are required to lay the ground for a thriving cultural centre in regional towns and cities?

With Dr Beatriz Garcia | Associate Director, Centre for Cultural Value, Paul Bristow | Director Strategic Partnerships, Arts Council England, James Trowsdale | Strategic Lead for Culture, North East Lincolnshire Council, Emma Wilcox | Director, Creative Estuary, Hannah Harris | CEO, Plymouth Culture, Helen Mole | Tourism and City Centre Manager, Worcester City Council


Creative Coalition Festival’s How Can Culture Engineer the Levelling-up Agenda session approached the topic of cultural regeneration through the lens of the Levelling Up white paper, released the day prior. The panel reflected on the efforts being made to re-energise the cultural offerings in cities and towns across the UK, discussing strategic approaches and examples of cultural development.

Jason Jones Hall, chair of the regular gatherings of the Cultural Development Fund, hosted the panel which included speakers: Paul Bristow – Director Strategic Partnerships, Art Council England; James Trowsdale – Strategic Lead for Culture, North East Lincolnshire Council; Emma Wilcox – Director, Creative Estruary; Hannah Harris – CEO, Plymouth Culture; Helen Mole – Tourism and City Centre Manager, Worcester City Council.

Speaking about cultural development, Paul Bristow recognised the impact providing cultural opportunities has on the lives of the public, highlighting developments such as BALTIC, Turner Contemporary, and M-Shed. “Providing opportunities for rewarding careers, giving high streets a new purpose and developing quality local tourism offers. Culture is fundamental to what makes for a successful place.”

The Cultural Development Fund is a key contributor in transforming towns and cities. For Paul, the aim is to “support projects that make demonstrable, lasting, sustainable change in places and in spaces,” ensuring that local authorities and local organisations are part of the conversation.

In Grimsby, James Trowsdale highlighted the positive impact investments have had on the town’s cultural infrastructure. Working alongside Emergency Exit Arts and Magna Vitae, James noted the “new major public art taking place in the town, international events, and residences making the most of our town centre spaces and our heritage assets.”

Hannah Harris noted how Plymouth’s approach extends beyond the recognised creative industries, including health technology and the marine sector. Engaging those communities is key: “a lot of what we’re describing around technology and immersive experiences is also about how people engage with those things and how they can take those skills and those technologies and apply them to their real world challenges, but also their real world lives.”

In Worcester, Helen Mole described the importance of redeveloping abandoned sites through the Arches Redevelopment programme into cultural spaces. But, for Helen, it isn’t simply about aesthetic changes; there has to be incentive to remain in the city: “We would like people from the University to stay in the area and not to go elsewhere for jobs. We want them to feel that Worcester is somewhere creative and inspirational that they would stay and do well.”

Emma Wilcox, talking about the Creative Estuary programme, highlighted the importance of involving different types of organisations in the work being done: “We’re looking at how to repurpose heritage and other underused public assets for the use by creative industries as affordable, sustainable workspace for the long term.”

Opening the conversation out to a wider discussion, Jason asked how schemes such as the CDF support the levelling up agenda.

For Paul, it’s about “reducing disparities between places and taking that place based approach” in order to achieve sustainable success both socially and economically. Ultimately, the government must remove the barriers: “to ensure that the government, in framing that broader levelling up policy, is opening the doors for culture to come through.”

Speaking on local decision making and placemaking, James argues for a wider civic agenda in the arts: “there’s a really important role that culture and creativity can play in terms of enabling people to feel part of that activity…bringing artists on board to enable people to have the confidence to participate in those conversations and ultimately celebrate what is unique locally.” For Emma, cultural organisations and the public must be offered a seat at the table: “it’s about giving people the opportunity to start to participate in decision making and in programs that give them the confidence to use their voice.”

Reanimating the public space, particularly the high street, was a major talking point of the event. “We can’t just reignite what was there because it was broken,” argued Hannah. “Actually, we can do better. There is a real need to actually start thinking about culture beyond just animating spaces and actually reimagining them.”

Helen highlighted the role of the high street beyond retail, saying “regardless of retail, people are still looking for places to go and things to do. And that, to me, is absolutely where arts and culture plays that role in supporting and developing places.” Supporting that point, Emma noted that it is a case of investing in capacity, not capital. “We need a much more coordinated approach where local areas have a really strong vision and can bid for money and then have the agency to spend it locally.”

How Can Culture Engineer the Levelling-Up Agenda was sponsored by the Cultural Development Fund Network.