Investing in culture outside London will help cool the capital and boost regional cities

The tarnished road sign for Abbey Road, near the Abbey Road Studios in London. Image: Sander Lamme.

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. 

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So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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