Place-led Working for Culture: a moment for change

Val Birchall, immediate past chair of the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association (CLOA), explores how we need a 'national rethink' about how we support and grow cultural provision as an essential component of place-led working.

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A moment for change

Discretionary local government services are under severe financial stress as the gap continues to widen between demand-led pressure on statutory services and Councils’ capacity to meet the increasing cost. Unless there is fundamental change to the system, reductions and withdrawal of support for culture, already evident in the latest budget round, will only intensify. Despite its exceptional capacity for catalysing and delivering social transformation, and regardless of the quality and strength of advocacy, cultural provision is hovering in the danger zone.  Hard-won achievements in addressing cultural inequality, lifting civic pride or building employability over many years may not be sustained for all or for long. We are in need of a national rethink about how we support and, yes, grow cultural provision as an essential component of place-led working.

Cultural infrastructure projects sprinkle a sparkle of hope for the future. They create good news stories for political leaders and a welcome boost to community spirit.  In recent times, though, culture has fallen victim to a proliferation of initiatives and schemes which may not speak effectively to local needs, and tend towards competition between places for the benefits it can provide.  Meanwhile sustaining existing provision gets harder and harder.

The proliferation of tiers (and silos) of policy-making across culture and the lack of co-ordination of approaches results in a duplication of effort and an absence of coherence, between local and national policy frameworks. This is neither helpful nor cost-effective. The current national system is fragmented and un-strategic and fails to connect effectively to local structures. It creates additional work for over-stretched teams.  It takes a centrally-determined view of what is needed locally, which misses opportunities to connect to other stakeholders and takes little account of expertise at a local level. 

Leading in place

Local authorities are all about place. It is in their job description to set ambition for a local community and build a consensus about local priorities. Those elected live or have businesses in their patch, they represent and are accountable to their neighbours. They have hyperlocal knowledge.  They control some important collective resources and make things happen through their local influence (of head and heart). Officers in local government are also immersed in their place; their working day is about how to improve the place for those who live there and every interaction is with the people who collaborate to achieve it.  They have a unique role to play, but they are not the only players. 

This is about more than local government; and it isn’t a task to be managed, it is a leadership issue. We need to bring together the funding, governance and relationships necessary to establish and embed place-led working that is effective and reflects a functional sector at different spatial levels, and both within and across disciplines. 

Collaborative place-led working is a way of operating that acknowledges the need for system leaders (including residents, statutory, public, private and voluntary sector partners) to take up the opportunity of distributed leadership and be accountable. It needs us to build on local capacity (thinkers, networks, assets) and to know how to “get things done” around here, acknowledging relationships are at the heart of successful working. 

We need to eradicate competitive behaviour in the system – for resources, for attention, for credibility. We need to support people to think differently and invest in our collective ability to solve the complex and interrelated challenges at a national, local and sector level.

The national and the local

We hear a lot about devolution, yet our cultural sector is a functioning ecology that defies boundaries, and cultural access should surely be universal. So we need a new accord between the national and the local, informed by the professional expertise of cultural policy-makers and marrying place-led accountability with the long term actions needed to sustain a flourishing national cultural life.

Firstly, let’s build the collective know-how and capacity of the professionals working in this space. See ourselves as a national team of all the talents. One (virtual) workforce across local and central government and its ALBs.  Focus on our shared mission - what we are all aiming for - not who will get credited if we achieve it. 

There’s not enough of us to go around. Invest in developing our knowledge and be generous in sharing our ideas.  No one of us can ‘fix this’, but together we just might.

At a national level, we should work together on a strategy for culture that properly reflects the relationship between heritage, arts and the creative economy, and which is based on rigorous analysis of dependencies with a clarity of culture’s role in individual and collective wellbeing and as an agent of economic renewal, social resilience and so much more. Let’s use the years of experience of specialist professionals, draw out the specific contribution of particular places to the national priorities, and foster ownership of the actions required to succeed. 

At a local level, let’s see a more adult-to-adult relationship with the national funders that reflects this shared leadership paradigm.  Where places have a functional place-led solution for cultural planning and delivery that articulates the case for such an investment and carries the confidence of accountable bodies, let’s move to simplify the funding landscape and create a single, long-term, strategic partnership investment settlement for our place. 

Common principles with local variation

A local partnership-based cultural planning and delivery system should be a function of local identity - a credible ambition for culture, reflective of a consensus on local priorities, with an expedient geography appropriate to other place-based partnerships on the ground and part of the wider ecosystem in our footprint.  

The system should have common principles but flexible deployment to facilitate creativity in approaches.  We have already developed models for convening in our places (whether called partnerships, compacts, coalitions or something else).  Their different scales, levels of complexity and maturity of relationships, could be reflected in the investment settlements.  New funding streams would flow through the structure in support of agreed local priorities, rather than requiring new projects to be found and bids made in response to ad hoc national policy directions. 

Relationships are at the heart of success in local working.  Local cultural strategies, with the ownership and commitment of relevant local structures, should guide and manage the application of the settlement and take responsibility for monitoring and delivery of associated outcomes.  This would increase cost-effectiveness of the total resources available on the ground, creating a mixed funding model with other stakeholders, that secured longer term arrangements. 

Such an approach would move us away from short term, project-based interventions.  It would reflect both national imperatives and local variations. In turn, it would be more conducive to survival at the very least.  At best, ultimately, it would ensure incremental and sustainable cultural growth for all.