Supporting the north’s cultural sector will help level up society - Museums Association

Supporting the north’s cultural sector will help level up society

Implementing the Case for Culture report
Levelling Up
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Iain Watson
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The Case for Culture report, published in January by the Northern Culture All-Party Parliamentary Group (NCAPPG), rightly does not dwell on the past but notes that “the north has been particularly hard hit by the global pandemic and a legacy of deindustrialisation”.

The inquiry that led to the report was inspired by the government’s commitment “to unite and level up the country”. While statistics such as the mortality rate being 17% higher in the north of England in the first 13 months of the pandemic are stark, the optimism of this report comes from the acknowledgement of the positive social and economic outcomes of culture through the aims of the Levelling Up Fund and the implementation of the Cultural Recovery Fund. 

This publication should be read alongside the Institute for Public Policy Research’s State of the North 2020-21 report, which identified that initiatives focused wholly or mainly on economic productivity had failed in reducing regional inequalities and the need for “commensurate investment in people – for example, in health, learning and wellbeing”.

The Case for Culture report acknowledges both the unity of the north of England and the importance of local distinctivenessandidentity. It commits the NCAPPG to work together across the region and with the government, particularly the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to make the case for culture in the north and to progress 10 recommendations. Inevitably, at this stage, these are not detailed and costed.

Across the north, structures are different – unitary and two tier authorities, mayoral and non-mayoral areas, with different mayors having different powers. There is urbanism and rurality. There are demographic differences: Bradford is the city with the youngest population in the UK while many parts of the north are defined by an ageing population. Such issues make a pan-northern approach challenging. As the report says, this must be addressed with devolution of power and funding. 

This work must also acknowledge the existential challenges faced by many organisations and individuals, and the uncertainty over business models and survival strategies in a post-Covid world.

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One of the report’s conclusions is that: “While some of these recommendations are applicable across the UK in a post-Covid context, the levelling-up agenda offers a dynamic and timely framework for understanding and platforming step-change interventions and activities in culture across the north now.” This is important – it’s not special pleading for the north, or coming from a chip-on-the-shoulder position. It is a proud and positive statement for what the region needs, what culture can offer and how a revitalised, levelled-up north can contribute to the UK’s strategic priorities. 

Levelling up is going to be tricky. Pockets of high deprivation can exist close to affluent communities. There is a need for “anchor institutions”, for their own survival, to be in major conurbations while ensuring that towns and villages can express their culture and are not hollowed out, or served only by “cultural outreach” – excellent as it may be. Along with historical underfunding of a lot of the north, none of this makes it easy. 

The report is thorough, wide ranging and inspiring. It is packed with quotes from cultural and educational organisations, trade unions and politicians. There is less quoted evidence from the business sector though the chair of Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) was part of the parliamentary panel. 

It is now down to leaders across the north to prioritise the recommendations in the report and to begin to take them into action, encouraging the government to work with them and bodies such as the 
NP11 (a business-led organisation representing all the northern LEPs) to support the region’s cultural sector, not for its own sake, but for the positive impact it can have in helping achieve a more open, fair, equal and level society. 

Iain Watson is a cultural consultant and visiting professor of practice at Newcastle University

The Museums Association has submitted a response to the DCMS Select Committee inquiry on Reimagining Where We Live: Cultural Placemaking and the Levelling Up Agenda

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