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Culture: time for Mayoral leadership?

Culture: time for Mayoral leadership?

🕔28.Jun 2018

As the crisis in the cultural sector deepens, Andy Howell asks is it time for the Mayor and Combined Authority to take a greater lead?

Models of Municipal Mayors vary widely from continent to continent and from nation to nation. Even within individual nations the structure and power of Mayoral systems can be very different with each system telling you something about the history and the social and economic challenges of a town or city. Some Mayors run big cities, others small towns and some effectively operate in sub-regions, such as our own West Midlands.

In the USA Mayoral systems are often rated on a scale of ‘weak to strong’. Usually this refers to whether the Mayor has the power to set the budget of the authority of whether a town/city council has that duty. But ambitious Mayors — even in ‘weak systems’ set out to take on more power. Successful Mayoral systems develop and evolve over time. When the system of ‘Metro Mayors’ was introduced in England many assumed (and perhaps still do) that our system would develop in a similar way.

In England there are two routes in which a Mayor’s powers might be extended. Firstly, central government itself might deem a Mayoralty successful enough to warrant new powers. Secondly, local Mayors themselves can seek to extend their mandate, focussing on either gaps in services or underperformance in either local public services or the local economy.

One dramatic example of this was to be seen in Birmingham’s twin city Chicago back in the 1990s. The then Mayor, Richard M. Daly, did not control the schools system which was widely recognised as being in real difficulty. Daly took the view that his Mayoralty meant very little if he could not tackle the most pressing issue facing in his city. He campaigned — alongside parents and many education professionals — to take control of the school system and in 1995 he succeeded. Subsequently there was a marked improvement in the school system in Chicago (though a debate continues as to how much credit should be given to the Mayor).

Closer to home Ken Livingstone, as the first Mayor of London, worked very effectively to take on new powers and widen his sphere of influence, most notably with the introduction the Congestion Charge. I was once asked if I would be one of a number of people who would be prepared to speak to Mr Livingstone about why it would not be a good idea for him to assume responsibilities for child protection across the whole of London. His team feared such new responsibility could bog down his whole administration but Mr Livingstone considered this because — in the city which had given him his mandate — child protection seemed a system in crisis.

Devolution: dead or default?

Here in the West Midlands our Mayor’s responsibilities are pretty limited, a ‘weak Mayoral model’ using USA terminology — it is the Combined Authority which either approves or strikes out the Mayor’s proposed budget (as it did earlier this year). But, there are without doubt areas which might benefit from the expansion of Mayoral power. One of these is the cultural sector which seems to be crying out for new political leadership and innovation. Andy Street recognised the problems of the sector during his Mayoral campaign and he drew attention to the growing crisis in the sector at various hustings meetings.

Investment in art and culture was a major feature of Birmingham’s response to the collapse of manufacturing industry during the 70’s and 80’s. The City invested heavily in its cultural institutions and brought new ones, such as the Birmingham Royal Ballet, into the region. Birmingham’s cultural infrastructure became part of its USP.

Three into one for Four

It developed a cultural infrastructure and cultural community that was unique amongst our provincial cities. It was not only the major institutions that benefited and grew. Birmingham’s commitment to arts education led the country, to a large extent fuelled by the belief of then city leader Sir Dick Knowles and Leisure chief Brian Bird that the working people of Birmingham deserved access to the very best of both modern and traditional culture.

Sadly, as public finances have got tighter and tighter our cultural sector has begun to crumble. Our major institutions are struggling to cope with continuous financial cutbacks. These problems occasionally hit the headlines but elsewhere the crisis is even deeper. Local funding for community arts has been decimated, deeply effecting those programmes that are essential to the development of local and community arts activity and which are often so important to the development of emerging talent.

Access to quality arts education in schools is now severely limited, as result of the financial pressures on the education departments of large institutions. We now have significant areas of our city and our region where young people in schools — often in areas of greatest educational challenge — have no real opportunity to experience quality arts activity.

This crisis in our cultural sector matters. Our arts sector makes a leading contribution to one of the largest creative economies outside of London. Recent estimates suggest that the sector employs over a 1,000 full time equivalent jobs and that for every £1 invested in the arts £30 was delivered in terms of jobs created, services bought and tourists attracted to the city.

Over 3 million people are engaged in the arts in Birmingham alone as audience members or participants. And the audience is a West Midlands wide audience — the Birmingham based arts education programmes have traditionally been delivered across the region.

Many industries, most notably manufacturing, are increasingly viewed as creative industries. Their future skills base will rely greatly on the creative skills fuelled through arts education. Our competitor cities know and recognise this. Beyond the UK cities continue to invest in the arts and, to no small degree, continue to compete with each through cultural investment. I can think of no other comparable, or competitor, city to Birmingham which invests so little in its cultural infrastructure and its cultural life.

The scale of the problem here in the West Midlands may be unique but other regions are facing up to similar challenges. The importance of the cultural sector is not escaping other Mayors. In Manchester, Mayor Burnham has appointed a Director of Culture for Greater Manchester. Dave Moutrey is not an economist or inward investment expert, he is the Director and Chief Executive of HOME, Manchester’s multi disciplinary arts agency.

Mr Moutrey’s priorities involve making Manchester a ‘sticky city’ for creatives and ensuring that there is growing participation in the arts and cultural activities. This appointment follows in the recent traditions of Manchester where Maria Balshaw carried out a similar role for Manchester while she was Director of the Whitworth Arts Gallery. Manchester is providing its creative leaders and creative minds with the opportunity to help shape the future of the city at the highest level, a commitment which is so far lacking in the West Midlands.

Back in the West Midlands the Combined Authority has recently taken its first steps in moving forward with the decision to establish a Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism Advisory Group. The proposal for the establishment of the group considers the importance of the cultural sector to both the creative industries and to tourism development. However, it fails to focus on the importance of arts activity per se. Cynical observers will reflect that this report merely re-enforces the utilitarian view of the arts that has prevailed in Birmingham in recent years and which has failed to offer any real protection to a sector in crisis. While Manchester’s approach seems to be to invest in creative vision and experiment, here in the West Midlands we seem content to re-enforce a bureaucratic approach to the sector which has, to date, proved to be a disaster.

During his Mayoral campaign Andy Street not only often spoke about the challenges to the cultural sector, he was an enthusiastic participant in a husting event organised specifically by the sector. He told his audiences that this was the one hustings event that was really looking forward to, such was the importance of the sector. There is no doubt that he recognised the scale of the problem. Whilst we can all get a bit frustrated hearing about the latest developments in Manchester it is probably time for Andy Street to take a bolder stance and to set out to take real ownership of the cultural sector in the region.

We know that Andy Street is a great communicator and that with his Mayoralty we have a great salesman for the region. But the challenge for Mayor Street over the next two years of his term is to see how effectively he can intervene in sectors like the cultural one.

Mr Street needs to champion the sector and to campaign to get a better deal from government. He needs to convince (often skeptical Boroughs) to reassess their own priorities. He needs to explore new ways in which the business sector can make a more deeper commitment to the sector than simply sponsoring a performance; as Mayor he could make a real difference here.

The finance and professional service businesses that are flocking to the city and the region receive a great deal of help and support from our municipal agencies as a matter of course. But do they reciprocate by making lasting contributions to the development of the community? Speaking with the then Chief Executive of Birmingham Mark Rogers a few years ago, he suggested that we should develop a local investment fund for the arts, a fund that large incoming businesses should be asked to contribute to on an ongoing basis. Such an arts development fund would support arts education and the work of emerging artists.

The future of the sector will depend not only on better promotion of the region in Westminster, but the exploration of new forms of finance such as that suggested by Mark Rogers. Does Andy Street and his team have the imagination and the lateral thinking that will unlock new opportunities? Are they prepared to invest in creative minds in the way that Manchester has?

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. It has been inspiring to watch Coventry’s campaign to become City of Culture and it is fascinating watching the city develop its programme and its ongoing commitment to creativity. But as Mayor, Andy Street cannot afford to simply focus on the one bright flame in his region. Elsewhere in his patch things are far more depressing. Recent government data reveals that both Sandwell and Walsall are amongst the ten boroughs with the lowest rate of arts engagement in the England. As a region the West Midlands now has the lowest rate of arts engagement across the country.

This does represent a crisis and it time for the Mayor and his colleagues in the Combined Authority to take a greater lead. We cannot afford to sit back and bask in past glories. Birmingham and the region’s recent achievements are now rapidly becoming part of history. Yet study after study, research programme after research programme, show that cultural engagement, the widening of cultural opportunity and arts education are increasingly crucial components to successful economies future and thriving communities.

Andy Howell is a former (Labour) Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council and acted as Strategic Director of Birmingham Arts Partnership (now Culture Central). 

Main pic: the moment Coventry is revealed as City of Culture 2021 live on BBC One. 

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