Arts & culture - a spur for the NE economy
I recently visited Beamish Museum at an event organised by the Princes Trust (see pic). The museum has turned around its fortunes since the recession of 2008. After a period of being subjected to a rapid change in its funding formula it has moved away from direct grant to a funding model which has been driven by the success of this unique venture. Visitor numbers have doubled, a deficit has been turned into a surplus, staff numbers have gone up from 170 to 365 and £5.5 million has been re-invested. It is now embarking on an ambitious expansion programme which will add significantly to the tourist and cultural offering of the North East.
If Beamish can use our past to attract visitors, other initiatives can be used to tell those visitors about our future. Culture and tourism will be a critical component of the region’s success; they tell the rest of the world who we are, where we came from and what we care about. They give us the ability to confound backward looking stereotypes and to speak with confidence about the future.
Two areas of our region are to bid for UK City of Culture status, for two separate years. Sunderland hopes to attain the status in 2021 and Tees Valley in 2025.
The bids should be welcomed by everyone in the North East as they will draw attention to so much that is positive and exciting about the region. The development of the Sunderland bid would come from Sunderland Cultural Partnership, working with cultural organisations and communities across the city. The UK City of Culture programme, which runs every four years, was developed by the Government to build on the success of Liverpool being European Capital of Culture in 2008 and the Cultural Olympiad in 2012.
Even if the bids are not successful, the development of bids has proved lucrative elsewhere. Durham’s hugely successful Lumiere Festival sprung from its failed bid, but ploughed £5.8m into its economy and attracted 175,000 visitors in 2013.
In the Tees Valley the bid coincides with a great national anniversary. It is a date that changed the world and which had a lasting effect on the economy of this region – the bicentenary of the first railway; the Darlington Stockton Passenger Railway which was inaugurated in 1825. Railways form part of the life story of the North East; even today we are building trains again with the massive inward investment by Hitachi at Aycliffe and the impressive retro-steam train manufacturing operation at the Darlington Locomotive Works operated by the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust. I hope those planning the Tees Valley bid will look seriously at establishing a delivery team and a modest budget for the railway bi-centenary, whether or not the City of Culture bid is accepted. The bi-centenary is of critical importance to our area. Too often when the nation celebrates railways, it forgets that Tees Valley was there from day one. We are ground zero for mass transportation in the modern age and – even though the National Railway Museum is in York – Darlington, Stockton and Newcastle (where the Stephenson works were located) should be at the centre of the commemoration.
Art and culture are significant drivers in any successful economy. Local authorities can’t often justify spending large sums on this aspect of our life but Government does, through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In the forthcoming devolution talks I hope that a significant proportion of arts money can be devolved. Even if this is not a component of the initial offering from the Government, once we have a Mayor for the each LEP area, that person can and should make a case for culture. So much of the nation’s arts funding goes to big national museums and collections but when do we ever see our national collections on tour? Museums with national status have located offshoots in other parts of the UK; the Imperial War Museum operates museums in Manchester, Portsmouth and Cambridge; the Tate has galleries in Liverpool and Cornwall. There is a case for some of our national collection to come to the North East too.
An impressive report was published last month, the ‘Case for Culture’. It has five proposals which could ultimately double the 74,000 jobs we have in the sector. The report explains the economic impact of culture on the North East: “Existing research on economic impact shows that the
sector is delivering considerable value for the region. Our creative and cultural industries are estimated to be generating £755m additional economic impact.”
We are one North East with two Local Enterprise Partnerships; backing both the City of Culture bids is an ideal way of proving that, when we need to, we can all work together.