Written evidence submitted by Stoke-on-Trent City Council
DCMS Select Committee evidence submission
Stoke-on-Trent is a cultural city with a rich heritage that blends industrial expansion, innovation and cultural creativity. The city is the world-renowned ‘Capital of Ceramics’, but it is also much more. Culture is embedded in the city’s DNA; it continues to influence our attitudes and identity and it is a hugely important, yet still largely untapped, asset in terms of our economic growth ambitions. We are immensely proud of being “the city that makes art from dirt”, and that burgeoning civic pride and indomitable creative spirit have shaped our city’s approach to the levelling up agenda. We are a city of six towns, but our shared culture is one of the key factors that binds our communities together as a city. Culture in Stoke-on-Trent has come a long way in the last seven years. It was barely on our radar before 2015, but our bids for UK City of Culture 2021 and the regional Channel 4 hub transformed our relationship with culture and united our city in unique ways around a shared cultural vision and identify. As a city council, we are determined to maximise and capitalise on the value of Stoke-on-Trent’s extensive culture and heritage. As well as delivering exciting new culture-led regeneration projects, we are incorporating culture into our ambitious transformation programme and using cultural participation to improve outcomes for our residents across a wide range of service areas, from educational improvement to day care and dementia support.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Stoke-on-Trent’s creative sector employed 4,500 people and accounted for almost four per cent of our city’s workforce, although this has declined over the past two years due to the impact of Covid restrictions on activities and funding. We attracted a record 5.5 million visits in 2019, generating £365m for the local economy. Heritage is also an important part of Stoke-on-Trent’s cultural offer, and we have almost 1,000 buildings of special local interest which contribute to the heritage and character of our historic city. We have used Heritage Action Zones to enhance our local centres and bring culturally significant buildings back into productive use. We are also using culture in more innovative ways to achieve better outcomes for our residents. One example is the Cultural Education Partnership – a group of arts, cultural and heritage organisations which is working together to ensure that all children and young people in the city have access to high quality arts and culture, and opportunities to contribute to this vibrant and growing sector. Stoke-on-Trent has also been named as one of Arts Council England’s Priority Places. The additional investment and engagement with culture that this will provide will be of vital importance as we work to deliver the cultural elements of our ambitious levelling up plans for the city.
We are making this submission because we believe that places like Stoke-on-Trent, which have been bestowed with rich cultural legacies, too often lack the necessary investment and policy support at national level to enable us to capitalise on our cultural assets. There is currently an inequality of investment in culture which sees London receiving disproportionately more funding than the rest of the UK’s cities. This imbalance is compounded by the fact that provincial cultural investment is disproportionately targeted at larger metropolitan cities, rather than ‘levelling up places’ such as Stoke-on-Trent. This situation is not unique to Stoke-on-Trent; for example, Nottingham’s cultural offer is very much shaped by its lace manufacturing industrial heritage, and towns like Bradford enjoy strong cultural links to historical textile manufacturing, yet they also struggle to access the investment funding needed to capitalise on their respective heritage offers. We very much welcome the DCMS Committee’s focus on cultural placemaking in the context of the levelling up agenda and we hope that this leads to genuine dialogue with government and our national cultural institutions about what levelling up places need in order to unlock their cultural potential and the important and varied mutual benefits which a more equitable approach will deliver.
Culture is a vitally important element of Stoke-on-Trent’s history and identity, as well as our future plans for regeneration, economic growth and transforming outcomes and opportunities for our residents. Our cultural and levelling up ambitions are closely intertwined and culture has a huge part to play in our ongoing efforts to increase civic pride and revitalise our neighbourhoods and communities.
The Committee’s call for evidence regarding cultural placemaking and the levelling up agenda raises a number of important issues which have a direct bearing on our city and our ambitions for the future. The key points that we cover in greater detail in our submission below are:
Response to the call for evidence
How can culture reanimate our public spaces and shopping streets?
We are taking a pragmatic approach to shaping the future of our town centres and City Centre in Stoke-on-Trent. Part of that approach is about recognising the limitations and risks around retail and mitigating these through diversification – including building in opportunities for experiential offers. Examples of where we are switching away from retail-dependent centres can be found in our City Centre, where we are investing in improving the cultural and experiential offer of Piccadilly to complement the regeneration of our nearby Smithfield business district site. Similarly, in towns like Longton and Tunstall, we are using heritage-led regeneration to repurpose and revitalise town centres as cultural and living destinations, rather than shopping attractions. We have made significant progress, but we still have many legacy cultural and heritage assets which require significant and sustained investment. Our experience of using culture to attract footfall and improve the offer of our centres is that it’s not necessarily about creating opportunities to experience fine art in a high street setting. The cultural offer can involve stand-up comedy, a live rock gig or a circus act, but we really need the national bodies which fund culture and the arts to have a similarly broad view of what culture can mean and what works for different settings and audiences. It should be about reimagining the local cultural offer from the bottom up, rather than just simply turning spaces into art galleries and theatres because that is what the funding allows us to do.
How can creatives contribute to local decision-making and planning of place?
Competing to be the UK City of Culture in 2021 demonstrated that we had a vibrant creative community in Stoke-on-Trent with a wealth of ideas and expertise. Although we didn’t win the competition, we came away with a much stronger sense of the city’s cultural identity, stronger relationships with cultural organisations in the city and a better understanding of the value of heritage and culture and how they aligned with our own priorities and objectives. When we embarked on our City of Culture bid, we had an abundance of creativity and enthusiasm, but lacked local cultural leadership (we had no NPOs within the city at that time, and only one in the surrounding area). We established a new panel, the Cultural Forum, to pull vital support together from the various cultural elements so that we could begin to co-ordinate approaches to developing our bid. This strategy was very successful in terms of engaging with creatives in the city, and we have sought to build on this approach to engagement and leadership with the establishment of Stoke Creates, which was essentially born out of the bid. This gave us what many other places already had: a formal partnership providing leadership and coordination of cultural activities in the city. However, we have also found that, without a credible investment plan in place for cultural activity and development, creative forums can quickly become talking shops. Engaging with many small disparate groups that are often volunteer-led can make it time consuming and complex for local authorities to work with them in a meaningful way and generate consensus on particular issues. Creatives are willing to contribute to decision-making about culture and placemaking, but we need investment to grow the small number of National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) in the city in order to strengthen involvement in local decision-making. Arts Council England has been very supportive of this approach, and we welcome the Arts Council’s emphasis on NPOs ‘stepping up’ to provide cultural leadership locally, with a particular emphasis on place making in the next funding round.
How can the Government support places without established artistic infrastructure to take full advantage of the opportunities that the levelling up agenda provides?
‘Artistic infrastructure’ covers a number of important elements, which relate to cultural placemaking and the levelling up agenda in different ways. Firstly, there is the importance of physical cultural infrastructure: the spaces in which arts are exhibited and performed to the public. Levelling up places such as Stoke-on-Trent are likely to have fewer dedicated arts spaces than more prosperous cities and large towns. Our creative sector representatives tell us that cultural organisations and artists struggle to find suitable spaces that are available, affordable and accessible to all. On the face of it, this problem should be relatively easy to rectify, given that Stoke-on-Trent is a city blessed with a wealth of cultural and heritage assets – beautiful and architecturally significant buildings which would make excellent cultural spaces. Some are actually in public ownership. However, many of these assets require substantial investment to bring them into productive use. The cost of refurbishment is too great for us to meet through our limited capital finances, or for commercial buyers to take on unaided, but significantly less than the cost of building new dedicated arts spaces in the city. We have demonstrated, through successful Heritage Action Zone projects in parts of the city, that targeted funding can preserve and restore cultural treasures for future generations, enhance our built environment and make an important contribution to urban regeneration and economic growth. But we have buildings like the Grade II listed Queen’s Theatre, situated just yards from the iconic Wedgwood Institute in Burslem town centre, which should be among our city’s most valuable cultural assets, lying in disrepair and unused.
Consideration should also be given to the role of other infrastructure (particularly transport and digital) in enabling audiences to access culture in meaningful ways that will contribute to the local economy and the vibrancy and vitality of our City Centre and town centres. Unlike conventional, unicentric cities, we have cultural attractions spread across a sizeable geographical area comprising six towns, plus satellite localities. Creating a compelling cultural experience for visitors to enjoy then places immense importance on transport connectivity – an area which we are addressing through our levelling up priorities, but which remains a major impediment to our economic and cultural ambitions.
There are also issues for cities like Stoke-on-Trent around scale and quality in terms of delivering cultural events that can pull in larger audiences. We have beautiful Victorian parks in our city which would make ideal spaces for outdoor cultural events, but we struggle to attract the calibre and variety of artists that larger cities can accommodate. Our newly-restored Hanley Park should be hosting open air concerts by prestigious, regionally and nationally celebrated cultural organisations, such as the Hallé Orchestra, but realistically we can only do these things as part of larger combined arts events which require significant resources to co-ordinate and deliver. We are simplifying our regulations around public events and entertainment, and we have launched an online one-stop portal to advise, guide and support organisers through all of the licensing requirements. We want to establish Stoke-on-Trent’s credentials as a national cultural destination, but we do need the funding and the guidance and support from national cultural organisations to enable us to attract the best artists and performers. However, support does not necessarily need to be purely financial. We would welcome opportunities to exhibit national collections on loan in our city’s galleries and museums to strengthen both our local cultural offer and public engagement, while supporting our efforts to entice external visitors to Stoke-on-Trent. Levelling up places would also benefit greatly from the relocation of cultural NPOs from London, as well as the opening of satellite branches of national cultural institutions. We are not suggesting that these proposals could be achieved for every levelling place, or that they wouldn’t require some additional funding to make them happen. However, these are examples of how indirect support from national institutions could help to create the critical mass required to enable places to maximise the levelling up potential of culture and creativity.
Culture and economy are closely intertwined in Stoke-on-Trent and we need to ensure that this important link is reflected in the Government’s levelling up agenda and that there is sufficient understanding of the range of economic benefits that culture can unlock for levelling up places. For cities like Stoke-on-Trent, investment in culture goes hand-in-hand with investment in infrastructure, skills and jobs, whether it takes the form of rescuing historic buildings for cultural and commercial use, creating spaces for cultural activity, supporting creative sectors to grow or creating cultural experiences in our town centres.
How might changes to the UK’s broadcasting landscape affect investment in cultural production outside the capital, and what could the consequences be for artists and communities?
We welcome any changes which are likely to lead to a more rapid proliferation of TV and film production activities outside London and large metropolitan cities. Stoke-on-Trent is already an emerging hub for digital, TV and film production, and nurturing and growing this sector is a key element of our levelling up and economic growth ambitions. We are home to an increasing number of creative production companies and have already hosted a number of high-profile films and TV shows, including the Great Pottery Throwdown series and the acclaimed film The Colour Room, about the life of celebrated ceramics artist Clarice Cliff . Both of our universities and our further education colleges are also closely involved in shaping and delivering the digital and creative skills needed to grow this vital sector.
Supporting this small, but significant sector to grow will unlock more than just economic benefits for Stoke-on-Trent. One of our main priorities as a local authority is creating opportunities and improving life chances for our children and young people. By establishing a thriving digital, tv and film production sector in the city we will be raising young people’s aspirations in terms of the skills, careers and salaries that they can attain and strengthening the city’s job creation and graduate retention offer. Artists living and growing up in Stoke-on-Trent will no longer be forced to leave the city to find creative work or develop new skills. The development of a sustainable digital, film and TV production sector would also further bolster civic pride and reinforce the bonds between culture, identity and community that have spawned creativity, innovation and industry in Stoke-on-Trent for more than 300 years. In June last year, the City Council launched a new prospectus for Silicon Stoke – a project to transform Stoke-on-Trent into a smart city for the UK and attract investment, businesses and highly-skilled jobs. Silicon Stoke will capitalise on the recent installation of a 113 km full-fibre gigabit network to deliver a new national gaming hub for e-sports, a full-fibre academy based at Stoke-on-Trent College and a brand new Digital Academy. We are focussing on growing and nurturing our local TV and digital media production sector as part of our efforts to support emerging clusters of digital creative businesses in the city. We need to ensure that national funding streams and the mechanisms for delivering investment in this sector recognise and reflect the increasing geographical diversity and focus on more projects and opportunities outside London and the major metropolitan cities.
How should Government build on existing schemes, such as the UK City of Culture, to level up funding for arts and culture?
The UK City of Culture competition is a good way of showcasing the cultural offer of participating cities, but it only enables a small number of places to benefit from the relatively short-term rewards on offer. Funding for arts and culture cannot be levelled up using a selective ‘beauty pageant’ approach which only provides lasting tangible benefits for one UK city every four years. City of Culture is no substitute for sustained, consistent and meaningful investment in arts and culture in deprived cities. We learnt two important lessons from our UK City of Culture 2021 entry. One was that we really had to start from scratch in terms of pulling a bid together, and use every scrap of available cooperation, collaboration, goodwill and community spirit to get it done. The other lesson was the disappointing level of residual support that we received, despite being shortlisted and having developed a highly credible bid from virtually nothing. We were effectively left to rely on our own resourcefulness and determination to sustain what we had built up. Fortunately, Stoke-on-Trent is a city that pulls together when it needs to overcome problems, and when we submitted our bid for the Channel 4 hub the following year we were starting from a more capable and confident place. That bid made people notice us; it demonstrated our seriousness about becoming a cultural destination and it helped to keep the spotlight trained on culture in our city while we looked at how we could develop and strengthen our offer. From that, we have been able to forge more productive relationships with a variety of national bodies and begin to attract vital investment and support, particularly from Arts Council England. However, our experiences highlighted the disparity of opportunity that exists between levelling up places and larger metropolitan cities with more established cultural infrastructure and capital. Levelling up places usually have to start from ‘square one’, trailing less deprived towns and cities and facing disproportionately more obstacles, while any hard-fought gains that they achieve along the way will inevitably feel more tenuous because they lack the solid cultural foundations which other places have established.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to use some of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to level up funding for culture. However, any new approach to culture funding must be based on the broadest possible definition of culture to allow cities the maximum freedom over the use this funding to ensure that the best local outcomes can be achieved. The Welcome Back Fund was enormously beneficial to Stoke-on-Trent because it came with very broad parameters which allowed us to use funding to stage co-ordinated cultural events in our City Centre to celebrate the opening of our new Spitfire Gallery at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. We used the funding to create an attraction of sufficient scale and quality to entice crowds safely back into the City Centre, driving up footfall and spend, as well as engagement with culture and heritage. It was tremendously successful, but if the Welcome Back money had come with more restrictive conditions attached then we wouldn’t have been able to pull that off.
Enabling the combined use of both capital and revenue funding for arts and culture would also be enormously helpful to levelling up places. Too often, capital projects in this sector can fail due to a lack of sustained revenue investment. Conversely, some of the arts and cultural organisations that we work with are unable to access or benefit from revenue funding because they don’t have a fit-for-purpose base to work from or appropriate and accessible performance spaces. Without up-front capital investment, they are unable to apply for revenue funding grants that they would otherwise be eligible for. The existing funding landscape doesn’t cater as well for these groups and places because it is often geared towards more established organisations in larger cities which don’t experience the same financial barriers.
Greater recognition of the role and importance of emerging cultural sectors would also be beneficial to arts and culture in levelling up places. This comes back to our earlier point about the need for to broaden the definition of what culture looks like in different places and the activities and sectors that it encompasses. They have the potential to make a significant contribution to economic growth, as well as our city’s cultural identity and social fabric. In Stoke-on-Trent, the shape of cultural production is changing and we view emerging sectors such as digital art, video game design and digital media production as being central to our city’s future cultural output. However, the funding landscape tends to have a more restrictive outlook which favours traditional forms of art and culture. The ability to access cultural funding streams would be hugely beneficial in terms of supporting these important enterprises and sectors to flourish.