I grew up in a village near Preston that contained several disused cotton mills, where generations of my ancestors had worked. I went to University in Liverpool but left to go to London for work the day after the 1987 general election. (The sun was shining on a triumphant Jeffrey Archer in London whist it poured with rain as we packed the removal van.) I live now in Stockton-on-Tees, work in Newcastle and can give you an impassioned and illustrated talk on the role of culture-led regeneration in North East England at thirty seconds notice.
So I really ought to have no sympathy at all with the authors of Policy Exchange’s recent ‘Cities Unlimited’ report. This was widely reported as saying (amongst other things) that cities and towns such as Stockton, Liverpool and Sunderland are beyond regeneration, let alone redemption, historical hangovers, and people unfortunate enough to be born or live there should accept that, and move down south. The south of England, meanwhile, had to accept that places like Oxford should double in size. (The only direct reference to the arts is to Baltic in Gateshead, but the point being made is that golf courses might be better for attracting high earners. The boys at Policy Exchange are obviously unaware that both Baltic and our council golf courses attract people from all backgrounds and earning potential.)
To quote Mark E. Smith’s apposite ‘NWRA’, ‘I was mad, and laughed at the same time.’ But, reading the report rather than the reports of it, it isn’t quite as mad, bad or dangerous to read as it might be. The report is sufficiently poorly researched and argued even I can pick holes in it. Their version of ‘economic geography’ seems simplistic, for instance, let alone their version of Sunderland. It obviously makes no sense in a place as small as Britain to write off large chunks of the country as ‘beyond their sell by date’. David Cameron called the report ‘insane’ apparently, which seems a bit strong. Suffice to say I’ve not put my house on the market.
But despite being easy to dismiss, the report raises some interesting questions for those of us who do believe in both the bits of this island that happen not to be London or the South East and in regeneration of all sorts, but especially culture-led:
· Isn't it true we can’t expect to have the same effect everywhere, and we don’t often make this plain?
· To what extent do the economic effects of culture-led regeneration rely on the density you can achieve it cities and large towns – and how might we need to act differently in smaller places?
· To what extent can we achieve an equity of cultural provision across the country without kidding ourselves that what will work or is necessary in Gateshead will work in Grimethorpe and Godalming?
· What would a ‘cultural geography’ reading tell us about Britain, and the places that have been, are and could be culturally ‘productive’?