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Amid the current drive for local authorities to have cultural strategies, Professor Daniel Ashton considers the challenges of trying to align those strategies to changing policy and geographic landscapes.



Recent coverage of analysis of cultural strategies in England by researchers from the University of Southampton, myself included, provides evidence of the drive for places to have cultural strategies. In this article, I want to focus on the recommendations of the Cultural strategies and futures report which I co-authored with Makanani Bell. 

Aims and priorities

The Local Government Association (LGA) Cultural strategy in a box  report outlines how “many local councils have sought to maximise the role of culture in their approaches to place, economy and society” and that cultural strategies have been produced to “coordinate their approach and develop a shared vision with residents and cultural partners”.

Overall, there is some similarity in the visions being produced and the priority themes being addressed. Last year’s report from Key Cities and Arts Council England (ACE), Culture and Place in Britain, suggested that “looking at the overall picture, the strategies of places differ in local content and priorities but there are no big changes in overall trends between those adopted a decade ago and newly developed ones”. For example, issues of health and wellbeing and the environment consistently feature in cultural strategies. 

That said, there is diversity in how it is done.

While Cultural strategy in a box focuses on local councils, our more recent analysis, Cultural strategies and futures, highlights different approaches showing that strategies are initiated or commissioned and coordinated in a variety of ways. These include local authorities, cultural trusts and cultural compacts – and different permutations of and partnerships between these. 

Consultation methods also differ. Our report references the varied data sources and datasets used including existing sources such as Taking Part and bespoke consultation.

These two examples focus on local differences in which those commissioning cultural strategies have options in their approach and methods. Our report further identifies ‘policy’ and ‘geography’ as two external factors where there is considerably less room for manoeuvre and there are intricate challenges of alignment.

Policy and position

A consistent approach is to reference and align to policy. This helps establish the currency of the themes and priorities set out in a cultural strategy and position a place and its cultural strategy within a wider conversation. 

An associated challenge is when a cultural strategy is published in between or across policies or strategies. For example, ACE published its 2010-20 strategy Great Art and Culture for Everyone in 2013 and its 2020-30 Let’s Create in 2020. 

As 15.7% of local authority strategies were published between 2017- 2019 and 27% of them covered only a five-year period, they only aligned with ACE’s current strategy for a couple of years before they dropped out of currency with the new strategy. 

Adding in the range of other policies, strategies and reports – such as place-specific ones on children and young people, the environment and the economy for example - further compounds the challenge. And then there are funder and strategic initiatives to consider, such as National Lottery Heritage Funding and Levelling Up Arts and Culture

In response to this, we recommend that cultural strategies go beyond providing a reference list of policies and strategies and, instead, create a matrix or table with greater detail. This would include all policies and strategies, when they were published, if they are timebound (e.g. ACE 10-year strategy) and how long they remain in alignment. This would enable periodic reflections on the continued relevance of specific policies and/or updating with new policies. 

A matrix would also help communicate the challenges of changing policy contexts. Instead of trying to catch up or constantly realign, a clear overview of the complexity of the policy landscape might be the basis for rethinking how and if a cultural strategy attaches to policy and other strategies.

The complexities of attending to and aligning with policy contexts is compounded when considered alongside changing geographies.

Geographies and boundaries

Our report identified how cultural strategies connect to and are shaped by changing geographies. Firstly, joint cultural strategies mean that a place may have a cultural strategy operating at one level (i.e. Metropolitan District; London Borough; Unitary Authority; County Council; District Council) and at joint level (e.g. Greater Manchester; Cambridge sub-region). 

Secondly, a place might be located within different geographies and different boundaries for different purposes. Points of reference could include:

•    Arts Council England Area Councils
•    Business Improvement Districts 
•    Combined authorities
•    Electoral boundaries 
•    Levelling Up Fund areas
•    Local Enterprise Partnerships
•    National Health Service Integrated Care Boards 

Thirdly, cultural strategies must consider relationships to places that exist aside from those defined by the obvious boundaries with which a cultural strategy is often operating (i.e., electoral boundaries). 

Consider how travel and access can shape experiences for cultural practitioners and audiences. People can create and engage with arts and culture in places other than where they are most permanently located. This can mean such people are not considered within or addressed by the cultural strategy for that place.

So, the development of cultural strategies should pay attention to changing geographies and boundaries and make connections with different ‘neighbours’ to explore cultural strategy alignment and the pursuit of common purpose.

Layers of policy and place

Taken together, these changing and multiple policy and geography landscapes provide essential points of reference and positioning. They are part of how a cultural strategy intersects with national priorities and conversations and integrate with place-based activities and decision-making. 

Alignment between these layers of policy and place is important. Sometimes, the connection can be explicit, for example when Levelling Up Arts and Culture articulates the Levelling Up agenda to 109 places. 

But there are many other scenarios where making the connection between a policy and different geographic boundaries, mappings and imaginations can be a fragmented and fractious experience.

For those commissioning and coordinating a cultural strategy, a manageable and sustainable approach seems to lie in balance. Identifying and being conversant with the layers of place and policy, but not endlessly following or reorientating to changes or putting in place future constraints.

Daniel Ashton is Professor of Cultural and Creative Industries at the University of Southampton.

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