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Is regeneration through culture the way forward for our ‘left behind’ places?

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The role of culture in regeneration appears to be back on the radar. Hull’s designation as UK city of culture 2017 has sparked a flurry of articles on the economic benefits it will have. And the Conservative manifesto in the last election tapped into similar thinking, stating that the Tories will move cultural institutions out of London to help bring prosperity to other parts of the country. But what role does culture play in economic regeneration?

Cultural projects are often measured in terms of the economic impact they are going to have, but thorough evaluations do not back these claims up. The What Works Centre for Economic Growth has looked at the economic impact of large sports and culture events and facilities. It found very little evidence of positive impacts on the local economy in terms of jobs and wages, while it found that facilities may push up house prices in their immediate surroundings (benefiting home owners but not renters).

While we haven’t looked at the impact of more general cultural interventions, it is worth thinking through the implications of these findings for such policies in terms of their likely economic impact.

The fundamental challenge that struggling places face is to attract more business investment in high-skilled activities, which in turn will create more and better-paid jobs. One of the principal reasons they find this difficult to do is because they haven’t got the skilled workers that high-skilled businesses are looking for. The opening of a cultural institution doesn’t change this, as it doesn’t improve the skills of existing residents. It is also unlikely to attract-in skilled workers from elsewhere either, who will look for the availability of a job first, then weigh up the cultural offer of a place after.

This can be seen in a number of examples that have attempted to do this in the past. The Middlesbrough Museum of Modern Art, in the centre of Middlesbrough, is an impressive building, but a walk around its surrounding area suggests that it has done little to change the city’s economic performance. The same could be said for the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, and even the O2 Arena in London. Similarly, the impact of the Sage and the Baltic galleries in Gateshead, which cost a combined £115 million to build, is also unclear. While they may well have had an impact on the wider image of Newcastle, previous research by the Centre for Cities has shown that between 1998 and 2008 the immediate area round the galleries saw a reduction private sector jobs.

What must be stressed here is that there are many good reasons to open new cultural institutions or host large cultural or sporting events that stretch far beyond economics. The problem is that these initiatives are often either held up as the answer to a place’s economic struggles, or are sold on the economic impact that they are going to have. Neither are a fair measurement for them.

Moreover, cultural projects are often envisaged and implemented in isolation to other policy initiatives, which amounts to a case of the cart coming before the horse. A city isn’t just about production – the range and mix of amenities it offers (such as bars, theatres and sports stadia) are important parts of what it offers the consumer. But in most cases its role as a producer must be strong in order for its role as a consumer city to flourish – Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, for example, was not conceived as a way to kick-start economic growth in the city, but instead came off the back of years of economic development to restructure the city’s economy. This means that any cultural policies should be couched in a much broader plan to support growth.

As such, if the aim is to turn around struggling economies, increasing the job opportunities available and the money in the pockets of people living there, the evidence suggests that culture-led regeneration is unlikely to do the trick. If struggling places are to attract jobs, then they have to deal with the fundamental challenges that prevent high-skilled businesses investing in them. While the specifics will differ from place to place, skills is the biggest challenge in many of them – and this is where the primary focus needs to be.

This piece was first published on the Centre for Cities blog.