North East England’s Case for Culture

Culture North East (also known as the North East Cultural Partnership) recently launched ‘The North East of England’s Case for Culture’. This is a ‘statement of ambition for the next 15 years’ and has five ‘aspirations’. (Pauses to think how much he dislikes that word and its contemporary applications and insinuations. Continues…)

Few would take much issue with the aspirations, which I suspect both Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall could include in their manifestos. The five aspirations are participation and reach, children and young people, talent and progression, economic value, and a vibrant and distinctive region with an excellent quality of life. The how has four main ideas: the partnership itself, increasing policy and funding influence, tripling overall investment over next 5 years and using the Case to encourage investment. Some symptoms of strategic tautology (a conditions I just made up) there, perhaps, and some missed opportunities but nothing fatal. (For example, in relation to investment how powerful would it have been if the 12 local authorities involved in the Partnership had felt able to make their own investment commitments clear?)

The Case for Culture has been created by a very inclusive process, with many sectors consulted via lead organisations, business and voluntary sectors, local authorities, open space meetings and other means – the appendices are impressive in their breadth. Interestingly, and healthily, the work was lead by Beamish Museum, rather than any of those smooth talking consultancy types. (I fed in when asked to by New Writing North, as a writer, although should also declare some pro-bono involvement in the early work with members of the Partnership board on what such a case might look at, and how.)

NECP has 24 board members – 12 local authority representatives and 12 people from the cultural, education and business sectors. It’s a unique partnership so far as I’m aware, and this is a unique strategic document. Inevitably, one must grudgingly concede, any strategy like this is going to bear testament to the smoothing-out effects of committee working and regional politicking that connect process to prose. This is apparent here in the lack of really big choices for the region. (Although I must say the actual prose is smooth and sharp and lacks the traditional visible stitching of many such documents.)

This is a tool for making cases, not a list of exciting priority ideas for investment (and by implication a shadow list what’s not an agreed regional priority) so this is perhaps fair enough – although I think a list of priorities ideas might have more sway with the potential funders right now. At the launch event in Durham, in warmly welcoming the Case, the advice of CEOs of both ACE and HLF boiled down to ‘be great and have great ideas’. Although I think the world needs rather more than that kind of beauty contest right now, and more than an ‘inverse-beauty contest’ of fixing blights and cold spots too, I hope funders will respond imaginatively to the collective ambition represented by the Case and how it’s been made, it may have been more attention-grabbing to have also some specific proposals of a Factory-scale if not type. (Ideally without a £10M pa revenue bill though…)

But, although the Case for Culture could have done with more specific examples to anchor the passion, I welcome The Case for Culture warmly and positively. The folk involved have done a good job. I hope the region can continue to work together to prioritise what needs to happen next, not just leave that to the sharpest elbows, loudest voices, most smoke-filled rooms or – even – shiniest ideas.

One such area where the Case may be useful in the next phase precisely because of its own weakness is in diversity. The Case vastly underplays the way in which the North East has changed in recent decades, and continues to change, and the contribution a more diverse cultural offer could make across all its aspirations. It even brings up what is to me an old, old argument that ‘the North East is actually one of the least diverse regions in the UK’. (Why ‘actually’, by the way, what’s that little emphasis suggesting?) This may be true at the headline stat level in relation to certain protected characteristics, but that misses at least three vital things. Firstly even at regional level, change is rapid – with the non-White population doubling between the last two censuses. Secondly, our cities and major towns are hugely more diverse in terms of ethnicity than 20 years ago – especially amongst young people. And thirdly, we have very high proportions of people with disabilities and impairments, for whom participation in culture and the economy is important. Class remains vital, as pointed out, but it shouldn’t be used to avoid considering other aspects of diversity, and how class intersects with gender, ethnicity and disability or sexuality.

Demographic change in recent years is a potentially really important positive for the North East, culturally and in terms of attracting businesses to the region, given the importance placed on diversity of workforce by many businesses. (Attracting business is one reason quality of life is important to the Case.) The relative homogeneity of North East England, or a perception of it, has arguably been a disadvantage in many ways. The perception that the North East is a white bread white culture kind of place is not helped by looking at the ethnicity of the North East Cultural Partnership board, which is (so far as I can tell), all white, despite having 24 members. (That’s 2 more than Trevor Nunn’s all-white history plays cast, for which he’s getting some flack.) I’ve said it before, and I know members of the partnership are conscious of this, but that’s more than disappointing, it’s not good enough. So I think diversity needs to be added to the Case for Culture in practice, and not just in terms of community identity, as it is rather painted in the longer document.

As the work of Creative Case NORTH has shown, in developing the Arts Council’s very welcome Creative Case for Diversity, the diversity of our cultural offer is not the responsibility of those people who happen to not be straight white able-bodied males, but of everyone in the sector. I was recently commissioned to review three years of work by the Creative Case NORTH consortium, based on surveys, interviews and meta-analysis of over 150,000 words of reports and event transcripts. This will be published shortly by the consortium, but there are themes which may be helpful to diversifying the Case for Culture.

The heart of the Creative Case NORTH process has been dialogue, based on mutual understanding and trust – which doesn’t always happen at the same time for everyone. Creating safe spaces to generate what one person powerfully called ‘1-1 accountability’ is important. This means bringing people together, not asking for individual community or sector responses, but encouraging people to be accountable to each other for our creativity and the platforms we create for each other. This is an idea that, in some ways at least, seems entirely in tune with how the North East Cultural Partnership developed the Case for Culture, so should be easily widened to make diversity a stronger strand of exploration of how we deliver it.

Thinking about 1-1 accountability would, in fact, strengthen every aspiration described in the Case, as part of using it, as suggested, as ‘a springboard’. What do we owe others in terms of participation in the culture of the region? What is culture’s role within the economy, and who is it for? What are our responsibilities in terms of developing young people, talent at any age and in ensuring reach and progression? Despite my caveats, I welcome the North East’s partnership approach to working through such questions.