The Great Exhibition of what? Culture, region and development in England’s north

Newcastle (left) and Gateshead (right). Image: Getty.

The Great Exhibition of the North (GEN) begins on 22 June, and runs for 80 days. Culture secretary Matt Hancock told a launch event in Gateshead earlier this year that it would be “the biggest event in England” this year, and would “bring tourism and deliver growth” – although, in fact, he personally wasn’t in Gateshead, and delivered his contribution via a pre-recorded video. Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, meanwhile, has claimed the Great Exhibition of the North “will be talked about for decades”.

These bold claims raise several questions. What is GEN? How did it originate? What will be its impact? And, above all, what is it for?

Based on Tyneside and centred on three “hubs” – the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, the Sage music centre in Gateshead, and the Great North Museum in Newcastle – GEN describes itself as “a free, summer-long celebration of the North of England’s pioneering spirit”, incorporating “a programme of amazing exhibits, live performances, displays of innovation, new artworks and unforgettable experiences”. From each “hub”, walking trails extend across the city, organised around the themes of art, design and innovation, linking various visitor attractions and events. Organisers anticipate that 3m people will visit the exhibition – comprising 60 per cent in-region day visitors, 30 per cent out-of-region day visitors, and 10 per cent overnight visitors – and will collectively spend £184m locally.  Alongside these events, a Northern Powerhouse Business Summit will take place in July.

The Great Exhibition of the North was conceived by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and first mentioned, briefly, in the Autumn Statement of 2014 as a companion piece to his Northern Powerhouse initiative. Northern towns and cities were invited to bid to put on the exhibition: local actors in the North had wanted a series of events in major cities across the region, but the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) insisted upon a competition between places.

Government guidance, published in April 2016, stated that “the winning venue will create and implement an exhibition that celebrates great art, culture and design of the North of England, showcasing local artists and performers, cultural organisations and creative businesses, promoting innovative and entrepreneurial activity, and highlighting research conducted by universities in the region”. The government announced it would contribute £5m towards the exhibition itself, in the expectation this would attract additional private funding. Another £15m was allocated to a legacy fund to attract further cultural investment in the Northern Powerhouse.

Bids were assessed by a panel including representatives of the DCMS, the Design Council and GREAT, the government's international marketing campaign. It was announced in October 2016 that Newcastle-Gateshead had won the competition – although it was noteworthy that other big Northern cities, such as Manchester and Leeds, did not bid. A national committee led by DCMS oversees the implementation of GEN.

Ministers’ claims for GEN’s impact need to be set against the modesty of its funding: £5m would not buy Newcastle United FC a run-of-the-mill attacking midfielder, but would, almost, buy a sensitively refurbished Grade 2-listed house in Notting Hill. Meanwhile “The Factory”, a £110m theatre and arts venue which will be built on the site of the former Granada Studios in Manchester, announced in 2014 by George Osborne alongside GEN, is to be funded by a contribution of £78m from the UK Exchequer and £7m from the Arts Council. GEN is small beer.

Attempts to attract private sponsorship also led to a shaky start for GEN. The announcement that BAE Systems, a major defence contractor with a presence in northern England, would be a key sponsor generated a backlash from some artists, who claimed that BAe’s funding was a form of “artwashing”, or that it “tainted the proud cultures and heritage of the people of Newcastle and Gateshead and, indeed, the North”. A number pulled out of the programme.

BAE quickly withdrew its sponsorship. Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse minister condemned the critics as “snowflakes” and “subsidy-addicted artists” – an odd complaint given the GEN represents a government subsidy to artists. Local artists announced they would hold “The Other Great Exhibition of the North”.  The likely problems arising from an arms manufacturer sponsoring an arts event were anticipated locally but overruled centrally.

The most intriguing question arising from GEN concerns what it is for. According the government appointed chair of the Great Exhibition, Sir Gary Verity, it aims “to change people’s minds about it being grim up north” and dispel the idea of the region as a place of “flat caps and whippets”.

This curious trope was repeated to me in discussions with some of the architects of the exhibitions’ programme. Successive waves of politicians have attempt to give the image of the north a makeover through Garden Festivals, marketing campaigns and the like. The aim has been both to change external perceptions and raise local pride and aspirations.

But my unscientific poll of young people in Newcastle and London revealed none even knew the phrase that seems to animate GEN. Like Don Quixote, Sir Gary is tilting at windmills, and missing an opportunity for a deeper discussion about the changing nature and value of regional culture and identity.

There is a good likelihood that Newcastle and Gateshead will enjoy the party. The region was adept at putting together a bid in short order that met the requirements of DCMS. Local officials and volunteers will work hard to pull it off.

But this will not alter the fact that GEN is the latest in a line of projects that are nationally conceived and overseen, hindered by limited resources, burdened by overblown claims about likely impacts and with questionable objectives. Indeed, GEN offers evidence for Simon Jenkins contention, “There is nothing more gauche than Whitehall ‘being nice’ to the provinces.”

John Tomaney is professor of urban & regional planning at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.