Over the last 30 years, the once fringe interest in the role and impact of art and culture in cities has become a huge area of mainstream focus.
In particular its relationship to gentrification occupies the thoughts of many columnists and policy makers, artists and activists.
Gentrification has been most apparent in the cities that ‘succeeded’ most in the transition to a post-industrial urban world – especially London and New York, which have seen once-deprived areas become enclaves of the wealthy at an ever-increasing rate.
While this is down to a complex combination of factors, the significant role arts and culture can play in gentrification been well documented. Such has been the expansion of gentrification processes that both London and New York risk eating themselves, as they become increasingly difficult to live in for anyone but the extremely well off.
The gentrification of these cities has been examined intensely because of its scale, but perhaps even more so because of the huge concentration of those in media, academia and the arts in London and New York and the impact it has had on the lifestyle of people in these sectors.
What this has perhaps masked, though, are the equally important issues around arts and culture in places that are the flipside to such overheated cities, the far greater number of under-resourced cities.
When industrial decline in the West really kicked in from the 1970s onwards, it impacted most on certain specific areas in an extreme way, such as my native Merseyside, or Glasgow. These could be written off by many at the heart of power as ‘localised failures’ whose decline was their ‘own fault’ for ‘failing to adapt’.
At least 40 years later, what is now clear is that places like Liverpool and Glasgow and Detroit were the canaries in the mine, as post-industrialisation and its impacts have spread across more and more places.
In the UK – outside of the increasingly bubble-like south east, economic stagnation is the norm, save for odd spots often relying heavily on success in specific industries such as Bristol (defence) and Aberdeen (energy), which themselves may well slump, impacting such places.
Bristol, booming again. Image: Shauking.
Outside of London, gentrification connected to the arts has had a less dramatic effect. One impact being that residential areas which have traditionally been popular with artists, public administrators, lecturers and the like, such as Didsbury, Jesmond, Stokes Croft, Aigburth and Chapel Allerton, are no longer affordable to them.
This section of society has therefore started to move into neighbouring – often more deprived – areas, and house prices have begun to rise there. This effect has been largely localised to very specific areas. New suburban housing built on the edges of cities is still more popular with the majority of the middle class in regional cities than most inner urban areas – nothing like the changes in London.
There has also been some impact on space for artists’ studios; music venues etc, being priced out of once abandoned industrial space for apartments, a recent example being Manchester’s Rogue Studios. Long-term leases for such buildings are also harder to come by than they once were.
However, in general, artists finding space, either residential or for the creation and display of the arts, is much less an issue in the regions than in big, capital-flushed cities. The far greater growing challenge for artists in the regions is being able to sustain a creative practice or organisation in such under-resourced areas.
While never easy, with the focus and money always on London, the ever-declining local authority funding for arts and culture, coupled with the closure of publicly supported venues such as theatres, museums and arts centres, as well as the reduction in the number of traditional ‘second jobs’ for creative practitioners (such as FE college lecturers), is a serious threat to the future of the arts and those practicing them in the regions.
With these local economies long having lost the core engines that gave them money to invest in culture now followed by the government cutting off support, this is not likely to get any easier.
There has slowly, after much campaigning, been recognition of the imbalance in central government arts and media funding and resources, and this is changing, but not nearly on the scale, breadth or depth needed to make a significant lasting difference.
There has been a focus on one or two government-favoured cities and investment often sporadic and patchy.
Of course, my focus on the arts is just one part of a much bigger issue – the huge regional economic and power imbalance in the UK, but it is a useful exemplar and something that could help create change in under-resourced areas.
In a different era in the 1950s and 1960s, when areas like Wales, Scotland and Merseyside faced economic challenge, a decades-long programme of investment was directed towards them, with companies effectively forced to invest in less prosperous areas.
The production line at Halewood Factory, near Liverpool. Image: Land Rover MENA.
While this was imperfect, it did in many respects create economic drivers that are still powering these areas to this day, such as the hugely successful Jaguar Land Rover factory in Halewood on the edge of Liverpool. A relentless focus on regional development on the scale seen in that era is what is needed to change the crippling imbalance in the UK, which has now started to eat away at London through its overheating as much as it has done in the regions for years.
As for the arts, the lack of opportunities and finance is much more an issue in the regions than overpriced space. In London, there’s a plethora of opportunities and no space. The solution is as simple as it is obvious. Undertake a long-term, large-scale, sustained investment in arts and culture in the regions.
Channel 4's London HQ, now under threat. Image: Stuart Caie.
There’s likely to be resistance, such as recently highlighted around Channel 4’s suggested move out of London, but at this stage it should be a win-win. London is so economically overheated that its arts and culture are being undermined, while in the regions, economic stagnation and cutbacks are undermining arts and culture.
The small-scale shifts in cultural policy and funding allocations over the past year or so have been a start, but what’s needed is a much bigger and longer-term plan to direct cultural investment and activity away from the capital. And indeed, what’s important for the creative sector is important for many other fields as well.
Would a government want to plan that far ahead and commit to that level of investment and change?
Evidence from the last couple of decades would suggest not, but further back there is a precedent. In these turbulent times it’s increasingly accepted, even demanded, that big change is needed across the country.
Such a large-scale regional cultural investment plan would be a welcome start.