Today’s report by MPs from the Digital, Culture and Media Committee of the House of Commons, is a welcome summary of the challenges that many feel need attention if cultural levelling up is to be achieved as intended by the UK government. The report provides substantial testimony of the difficulty of providing sustained investment and decentralised support for local, grassroots and community focussed cultural activities, particularly outside the ‘flagship’ model of institutional support and established centres of activity.
The report challenges the government to invest in place-based social and cultural infrastructure in new ways, by innovating in flexible models of funding, development support and clustering of provision though ‘cultural compacts’ working across departments, tiers of government and sectors within the creative and cultural economies.
The report is critical of the recent approach taken by government to these issues, and states that the committee has “little faith that national government and arm’s-length bodies are taking a joined-up approach with local government to Levelling Up cultural infrastructure.” The committee argues that it wants to see cultural policy that is devolved, and that “central government should continue to resist centralising impulses.” In this regard, the committee believes that DCMS should have a “greater role to play in convening and facilitating collaboration between local government, national and local cultural institutions, arm’s-length bodies and other stakeholders between and across local and regional levels nationwide.” The purpose of this facilitation should, according to the MPs, enable the “sharing of research, data and best practice,” while “ensuring that local stakeholders have the skills and experience to demonstrate local leadership and effective decision-making.”
The report uniquely recognises a number of important characteristics of a successful cultural policy, that it indicates are not being advanced, despite the potential for economic benefit in the longer term. These characteristics include the participative nature of arts, culture and heritage; the esoteric and idiosyncratic nature of cultural activity, and the decentralised and dispersed nature of their development. In this regard the recommendations made in this report mark an important shift in thinking, away from ‘value-for-money’ assessed on the basis of the scale of arts, culture and heritage projects, and instead moves towards a ‘dispersal’ model of value, where cultural relevance is determined by the communities who identify with each place, and who have the most to gain from participation in projects that are co-located and embedded within those communities.
It is refreshing to see a report that identifies that “arts and cultural education is important in its own right for the social benefits it brings.” The report goes on to argue, that in addition to these factors, support for arts, culture and heritage is also an “important factor in addressing issues of poor social mobility and the national skills shortage.” Not only is investment in local arts, heritage and culture of benefit to the wellbeing and development of our communities, the report suggests, they are also economically beneficial, and help to grow the capacity of the creative industries more generally.
When it comes to considering the role of media, however, the report is somewhat limited, in that the report make reference largely to the role of national public service providers, such as the BBC and Channel Four, as conduits to a distributed media cultural approach. Where the report is lacking, therefore, is in its understanding and representation of the role of community and independent local media makers, who play a significant role in sustaining the viability of independent and local cultural conversations and activities.
For example, community radio isn’t specifically recognised as a platform for the provision of place-based cultural and community information. There is a tendency in this report to account for media only through the lens of the corporate and industrial media producers. The grassroots platforms and providers that are well established across the UK don’t have their voices heard when it comes to the development of policy, because they are largely invisible. This is despite community radio, for example, exhibiting many of the desirable and positive characteristics that the report calls for in cultural provision.
The characteristics of community radio which correspond to the concerns expressed in this report are that community radio is place-based, people-focussed, purpose-driven, participative, practical and socially inclusive. What is lacking, in this report, and more generally in policy terms, is any acknowledgement that community radio plays a wider role in purposeful social change. Community media is not specifically championed in government, despite the fact that community media could potentially be a purposeful contributor to levelling up.
The problem is that community radio is almost entirely recognised and discussed within the confines and priorities of the broadcasting sector. Community media here in the UK is not recognised, as it should be, as a community development movement, one that offers opportunities to address the levelling-up concerns of the cultural placemaking. It is worth quoting the challenges that the report lays out about funding and support that is provided from all levels of government in support of cultural placemaking:
- There is a “lack of necessary cultural infrastructure,” with only limited access available to communities in dispersed places to meet, perform and broadcast, with many spaces described as unfit to serve the needs of cultural venues.
- There are disparities in physical infrastructure, which mean that provision for access is unreliable and expensive, with limited transport links, and poor digital connectivity. Those communities that are distant from established cultural infrastructure, such as rural communities, often miss out because planning is concentrated in city-centric places.
- There is a lack of “necessary partnerships with local government and anchor institutions,” meaning that activity in the cultural sector often goes “unrecognised by authorities beyond those immediately engaged in projects, meaning fewer opportunities to broker mutual engagement with decision-makers. Indeed, many of the partnerships with anchor institutions, like universities, are also “under strain” because of a reduction in regard for and the perceived status of creative courses.
- There is a national shortage of necessary skills, education and diversity of talent, and a limited capacity for cultural organisations to “deliver projects and facilitate creative output” that reduce “barriers to opportunity and social mobility for disadvantaged socioeconomic groups, women, disabled people and ethnic minorities.”
- There is a reliance on freelance work, particularly focussing on relocation to London and the South East, which has limited the employment aspirations for both individual creatives practitioners, and for those places that do not have large-scale cultural infrastructure.
- Finally, there are social factors, which includes audience confidence in what is available to them, and the habits that they have acquired in thinking about and experiencing a wide range of cultural activities. The legacy effects of legacy and heritage models of culture are themselves destabilised by a ‘dissonance/dis-inheritance” dynamic that is not inspiring people to foster new relationships and models of development.
It’s important, then, that the next round of discussion by MPs and policymakers includes community media, in its broadest sense, as a potential movement for purposeful social change. Why not address these issues through discussion and practice across different community-focussed media platforms, and use the skill, passion and commitment that people have to speak with and for their communities across the platforms to achieve the aims of levelling up?