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Getting it right

As the UK City of Culture title passes to Coventry, there are lessons to be learnt from Hull’s experience, writes Ben Cooper.

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Opinion

Four years ago, Hull became UK City of Culture. Across seven days in January 2017, ‘Made in Hull’ brought together 350,000 people in celebration of the city’s history and its proud contribution to the country since the second world war.

Highlighting the city’s long-gone fishing industry and brand new wind turbines, Made in Hull used culture to articulate the challenge facing many communities across the North and the Midlands today: decades of deprivation caused by the collapse of industry and the search for new economic opportunities.

‘Levelling up’ is the government’s attempt to answer that challenge, and Covid-19 makes it more critical than ever to get this right. As the UK City of Culture title passes to Coventry, there are lessons to learn from Hull’s experience on the possibilities and pitfalls of turning around economies and creating great places to live.

Arts and culture has to be a high priority for levelling up. A Fabian Society report, Cultured Communities, identified four ways Hull used culture for the benefit of residents. These were improving wellbeing; increasing social mobility; transforming local communities; and supporting the local economy. UK City of Culture delivered real benefits to Hull: it supported 60,000 school students to gain new skills and increased jobs in the visitor economy by 27 per cent. It encouraged investment in the city and laid a foundation for wider economic growth and prosperity.

The government appears to partially recognise the importance of arts and culture, with an indication that the £4bn ‘levelling up fund’ might be used to invest in culture, among other things. This is desperately needed. But local government funding cuts since 2010 have forced councils to slash spending on arts and culture by over £860m per year. Places like Hull are struggling to provide support for their culture sector. Without fairer funding of arts and culture, levelling up will be incomplete.

For levelling up to work, we should pay attention to what communities want, as well as what the government thinks they need. Hull used culture to bring people together and bridge divides. For example, 68 per cent of audiences agreed Made in Hull gave them the opportunity to interact with people they would not normally interact with. During our focus group about UK City of Culture for Cultured Communities, it was clear this mattered: participants thought their city, and their everyday lives, would be improved by more accessible culture that brings people together and tells a unifying story, connecting residents with “who we were, who we are and who we’re going to be as well”.

What communities want to improve their area may be different to what distant policymakers think places need. While new infrastructure will be vital for levelling up, there is also a risk that it is seen to serve other people. In Beyond the Red Wall, Deborah Mattinson sets out how Red Wallers viewed HS2 as serving Londoners, not them. There is evidence from other so-called ‘left behind areas’ that there is demand for policymakers to deliver new spaces for people to meet and to help communities come together – something that is more important than ever after Covid-19. It is therefore vital that the government listens and ensures levelling up also delivers what people want for their area by engaging with communities to understand their needs.

Government must be realistic with the public about levelling up, the scale of intervention required and its timescales. Reversing decades of relative economic decline takes a lot of time and money. Hull’s City of Culture was, by definition, a short-term spending commitment that was not accompanied by significant national investment in wider economic development for the area. It was generally a positive experience, laying a foundation that sustained intervention could have then built on. But that never materialised on the scale required and it has proven difficult to deliver the sustained change for the city that communities can feel and talk about. In our Hull focus group, residents were unclear on the difference it had made to their lives, with one individual claiming: “certainly the paving’s nicer, so it looks better [but] whether it’s actually improved in any substantive terms, I doubt it. Small businesses can’t stay open, shops are closing down”. For many, the optimism of 2017 has led to disappointment and disillusionment as the high street emptied and people failed to feel better off, despite the very real difference City of Culture made.

There is a very real risk that the same happens for levelling up. A one-off levelling up fund, allowing local areas to bid up to £20m, will not sustainably strengthen local economies and create great places to live by 2024. It will not deliver the transformation people are expecting, just as City of Culture did not deliver the scale of change Hull was perhaps hoping for.

Much has changed for Hull – and the country – since 2017. Covid-19 means levelling up has taken on a new importance for many places across the North and the Midlands, including Hull. Getting it right requires learning the lessons from Hull’s four years as UK City of Culture: using culture, focusing on what matters to communities, and being realistic with the public about what levelling up can deliver.

Image credit: Zoe/FlickR

Ben Cooper

Ben is a researcher at the Fabian Society.

@BenCooper1995

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