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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Northern Heartlands

The Great Place Scheme demonstrates how projects flourish when official bodies allow them freedom from pre-determined outcomes, says Jill Cole.

Northern Heartlands is one of 16 Great Place Schemes that have been running in England since 2017: all are due to come to an end this year. An interim national evaluation report, which ArtsProfessional reported on last summer, suggested that these projects were over-ambitious – with the implication that responsibility for this somehow lay with naively “passionate” project managers.

I would argue that the level of investment in the Great Place Scheme in England (£20m from a combination of Arts Council England (ACE) and the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF)), as well as the thinking behind it (the scheme derived from the 2016 Culture White Paper), demanded ambition. The timing of this ‘pilot’ has coincided with rising interest in placemaking across a range of sectors, from town planning to public health, and the scheme has huge potential as a focal point for cross-sector alliances. The time is ripe for the arts, cultural and heritage sectors to prove their worth in our increasingly confused social and political climate. Unfortunately, the Great Place Scheme was subject to funding limitations which meant that in many places only local authorities had the resources to meet application requirements. As a result, a generously funded but time-limited programme has ended up being tied to the complex procedures and pre-existing agendas of local authorities. This supports neither opportunism nor improvisation – nor ambition.

When we don’t assume we know what will happen in the end, this can allow the very best things to happen

Ambitious outcomes

Northern Heartlands, the County Durham Great Place Scheme, works closely with the local authority but remains independent of it. Our highly supportive accountable body is the Destination Management Organisation (DMO) Visit County Durham (which operates within Durham County Council) but the Northern Heartlands office is in a separate location in the rural south west of the county. Our small but dedicated team includes two Community Facilitators whose role is to build trust and establish relationships with people and communities – listening to them before commissioning artists, working with them to develop and deliver projects. Our scheme has resulted in more than 60 projects and events, large and small. These have engaged more than 4000 participants and a total audience approaching 11,000 so far – all in an area without any large towns or cities.

We have also co-ordinated a series of speaker and discussion events exploring issues affecting people and landscapes in our area, including placemaking, tourism, town planning and hill farming policy. Using creative approaches ranging from circle dancing to collective bread-making, we bring high profile speakers to our rural area and invite delegates from a range of places and backgrounds. Community representatives and artists are on an equal footing to policy and decision makers.

Together, delegates have generated new and creative responses to shared issues, including creative research into the use of small venues, community involvement in tourism strategy and a network linking creative practitioners and planners. Our final symposium – Places in Particular, from 6-8 April 2020 – will explore why it is vital to understand the uniqueness and complexity of even the smallest places, whether for the success of cultural and heritage projects or for just and equitable policymaking.

In a relatively short period of time we have delivered ambitious outcomes. Beyond the reach and spread of people’s involvement in our projects, our work has led to a pledge by the local authority to use theatre as a tool for consultation with communities (particularly in the context of Neighbourhood Planning). The North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty partnership has committed to including creativity and culture in its management plan.

We have a working partnership with the Town and Country Planning Association, which now includes arts and culture as a strand within its organisational strategy. Artist-led work with hill farmers has created links with the Uplands Alliance and interest from Natural England and DEFRA. Our work features as a case study in ‘Neighbourhood Planning for the Environment’ – a toolkit published by the Environment Agency, Natural England and Historic England. Most recently, we have built a partnership with the local NHS Foundation Trust in response to the new ‘Framework for Community Mental Health Support, Care and Treatment’, which has a ‘place-based’ approach.

Importance of flexibility

Much of this has been possible because we are one of the Great Place Schemes not tied to larger bureaucracies and pre-defined programmes. Our bid was a legacy from a previous HLF-funded Landscape Partnership Programme, led by a steering group of independent volunteers. When writing the bid, they had the foresight to suggest only the type of activity that might happen, allowing us to be fleet of foot and able to respond to opportunity. This spirit of trust extended from the steering group to the team, and from there to the artists and communities we work with. We didn’t start with an end in mind (another innovation allowed by the Great Place Scheme) and this meant we could use the collective creativity of the people we have worked with, whether local participants, artists or partner organisations. This has provided solutions and outcomes that could not have been predicted in advance by bureaucratic strategies. More than this, it has helped to give some ownership to communities who often feel they are ‘done to’, rather than ‘done with’.

Our independence and flexibility has been key. Even over a short three-year programme, things change and stuff happens. It makes sense to have the resource to be able to respond quickly and turn that to advantage. However, it does feel that this gift of flexibility has been in spite, not because, of the funding systems that support us. Of course, investment of public money needs to be prudent and funded organisations must be held to account, but I would suggest that binding programmes to large institutions and rigid outcomes runs the risk that they miss out and under-achieve. I hope that ACE and NLHF don’t take away from the Great Place Scheme the evaluator’s implication that project managers were too ambitious. Instead, I urge them to learn from the flexibility allowed to flourish in some of the schemes. Places, people and circumstance are unpredictable; when we don’t assume we know what will happen in the end, this can allow the very best things to happen. Sometimes it is the smaller, independent organisations, rooted in communities, that are best placed to achieve results.

There are no plans, currently, to continue the Great Place Scheme but in so many ways it feels as if our work has just begun. Trust is slowly being established, relationships have been built and we have a wealth of evidence from communities and partners who would like us to continue. We have now established Northern Heartlands as a CIO in its own right and have embarked on the long haul of seeking further funding. We hope there are funders out there who are prepared to be as imaginative about how their funds might be used as the Great Place Scheme so briefly was. Funders who accept that working creatively – in all its senses – means you don’t always know where you will end up when you begin, and who put in place evaluation able to cope with this. Funders who recognise that it takes more time than the average 3-year funding cycle to get under the skin of what makes individual communities function, to build trust and relationships, and ‘do with’ instead of ‘doing to’.

The Great Place Scheme set out to provide stronger links between communities and their cultural infrastructure and heritage. But it can do so much more than this; our ‘pilot’ has demonstrated that using heritage, culture and creativity to explore issues can build confidence, inspire new solutions and enable meaningful dialogue between those who make decisions about places and communities, and those who live in them. I make no apology for that sounding both ambitious and passionate.

Jill Cole is Director at Northern Heartlands, the Durham Great Place Scheme.

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Photo of Jill Cole