I have a recurring nightmare and it is this: I work for the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) in the section monitoring cultural strategies and I return to my office on 3 January 2003 to find the newly delivered cultural strategies of all 354 English local authorities awaiting me, each and every one claiming to have a uniquely distinct vision and cultural identity and an outstanding capacity for attracting the day visitor, writes Paul Kelly.
Now I?m not disparaging the genuine regional differences that exist, the astonishing breadth and richness of our heritage or the distinctiveness of our artists and craftspeople. All of these lend places unique qualities which in their own quiet way balance out the homogenisation of the corporately branded high street. But as officers in individual local authorities strive to map what they have and to identify difference and diversity in pursuit of a cultural strategy, it seems to me that an essential point in the whole exercise is being overlooked. Audiences have an infuriating habit of crossing local authority boundaries without a by-or-leave.The facilities nurtured and paid for by one set of local taxpayers can in fact be enjoyed by a completely different group who contribute nothing more than their time and ticket money ? scandalous! And this fact is a pre-requisite for the survival of many an arts venue.

So whilst the justification of cultural strategies based around local authority services has one set of justifications ? local authorities are accountable and have strong planning and development powers, this is a rather one-dimensional picture if you take into account the way that people actually use their leisure time and facilities. Moreover, there is much evidence to suggest that regional and sub-regional economies function in an altogether more sophisticated and complex way.

In ?Cities and The Wealth of Nations? economist Jane Jacobs argues that there is no such thing as a national economy but instead national economies are the aggregated result of successful city economies. And a successful city, she argues in ?The Economy of Cities?, is one that has a healthy trading relationship with its hinterland and ultimately exports more than it imports by drawing in raw materials and creating added value through the skills of manufacture and marketing. What is more significant than administrative boundaries is the ebb and flow of creative traffic ? both artists and more particularly audiences. And it is here, despite the probable existence of some very relevant data, that we seem to be suffering a bit of an imagination bypass affecting not just cultural strategies, but also significant funding decisions, particularly about capital projects. It is also affecting how we support and distribute the wealth of cultural resources and the finance that underpins them.

The trouble is that while the DCMS cultural strategies exercise is a valuable focusing process, it may focus on provision rather than purchase patterns. Finding natural clusters and alliances that reflect consumer trends, while respecting decades of local loyalties and investment, is going to take time. Meanwhile, the biggest increase in funding for the arts in the next ten years is likely to come neither from central nor local government, but from the private purse. If local authorities are to realise this potential and avoid costly capital and revenue mistakes, they need to start thinking beyond their boundaries and examine where people live, how and where they purchase their culture, and from this try to develop a sustainable cultural ecology.

This article is gives the personal view of Paul Kelly, who is Principal Arts Development Officer of Plymouth City Council. t: 01752 307016; e: paul.kelly@plymouth.gov.uk