How can officers help to position the arts, culture and heritage within their council’s priorities? Polly Hamilton, Assistant Director, Culture, Sport and Tourism, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, shares her thoughts. Councillor Mike Hill of Kent County Council shares his thoughts. This opinion piece forms part of the inspiring officer leadership section of our online Culture Hub.
Rotherham has had a difficult recent history: the Jay Report set out the extent of child sex exploitation in the borough and the Casey Report attempted to address failings within the council and other partners. The council was effectively put into special measures and placed in the hands of independent commissioners. They brought in a new leadership team and each service has gone through a ‘health check’.
A key recommendation was the establishment of a new service for culture, sport and tourism – viewed by the commissioners as having an essential role in helping Rotherham to recover and transforming perceptions of the borough. I was appointed in October 2016 and have begun the process of exploring how arts and culture can help individuals to heal and the community to come together. Culture is seen as a really important part of our offer at the highest level within the council, despite the context of austerity. The commissioners want activity around arts and culture to happen, and it is my job to ensure that the rest of the organisation understands that and buys into it. It is important for Rotherham’s communities to create positive new narratives, celebrating their heritage and creating a new vision for the future.
All councils face the challenge of austerity. In Rotherham, even though the importance of leisure, culture, parks, heritage and theatre is acknowledged – local people care about these things and are proud of them – the lack of a senior-level champion until now has meant only limited inclusion within the big strategic plans. Understandably, most of the council’s investment is going towards tackling safeguarding for children and young people. However, there is a need to repair trust between the council and the community and between different sections of the community. We have a strong foundation to build on: the level of professionalism within Rotherham Council is high. It is now about giving people the confidence to be bold.
My role involves listening to and understanding the issues that are important to my colleagues and what they are trying to achieve. Then we can position arts and culture within that framework, talking to colleagues about the growing evidence base. We can also explain how our services can reduce future demand on others. For example, to tackle social isolation, affordable arts experiences are far less expensive than the care that would be required further down the line. Culture brings something different to the party: inspiration, new networks and resources, fun! This is particularly important for organisations where staff turnover and stress-related sickness absence are high. If we get front-line staff motivated and enjoying what they do, and engage them in designing projects along with our communities, then we can build morale and, at the same time, create informed and engaged advocates for the arts.
The challenge for our sector is about delivering affordable, quality, regular experiences for people with limited spending power. We also need to recognise the importance of choice – the same activity won’t suit everyone. The places and communities that most need arts and culture are the ones that have had the least engagement in the past and don’t yet have a strong voice. The challenge for us is to engage effectively with these communities. The relationship between councils and communities, and communities and arts organisations, is changing: it is now much more about partnership and co-production. By exploring our unique cultural heritage we can uncover new stories, enable people to find their voice and develop their own narrative for the future. That is real power.
This opinion piece has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England.