Phil Redmond appears to have caused a bit of a stir (or, at least, he thinks so) by recommending the establishment of ‘Local Cultural Partnerships’, to sit alongside the Local Economic Partnerships being established to replace Regional Development Agencies around the country (see his contribution to the State of the Arts Conference, referenced on his blog entry entitled Local Cultural Partnerships: ruffling some feathers.
It feels like 1998 all over again. Then we had RDAs being established across England, with DCMS and others calling for cultural partnerships which could align and sit alongside these economic development bodies. Some six years down the line (2004), we ended up with eight formal Regional Cultural Consortia (or Consortiums, as I think DCMS referred to them), plus a Culture Strategy Group in London. These were partnerships of the regional offices or committees of national DCMS agencies: Arts Council, MLA, HLF and so on. They were intended to provide a mechanism for engaging with the RDA and, perhaps most importantly, acted as a reference point for the Government Office for each region – acting as a forum through which national and regional policy could be co-ordinated. (Interestingly enough, and as a brief aside, there was no National Cultural Consortium – no formal mechanism which brought ACE, MLA and others together on a regular basis to develop national cultural policy, or to engage with national economic policy being developed at the-then DTI. Now, there’s an idea….)
As Redmond envisages it, an LCP will actually take on a set of roles very similar to the existing Arts Council regional functions (now with the expanded remit of Museums): “to support, underwrite and fund cultural projects that would bring both economic benefit to the wider economy while at the same time bringing about measurable savings in public service delivery”. This presumes a level of funding and responsibility which goes beyond a strategic co-ordination and lobbying function, and actually goes beyond the formal role of LEPs themselves. But perhaps, as the Arts Council becomes inevitably more centralised – as it looks to cut its overheads by a staggering 50% - there will be a heightened role for local agencies, able to co-ordinate across the cultural and creative sector.
So, separate LCPs? Or LEPs with some C on the (in)side? I’d argue for a bit of both, linked to the local circumstance.
The strength of the LEP model is that, theoretically, these are partnerships forged around economic and industrial clusters, not administrative boundaries. It just doesn’t make sense to add a purely ‘administrative’ layer or mechanism to sit alongside. The problem with making a special case for culture – then, as now – is that it risks sidelining culture from the economic partnership. Of course it’s not an either-or – but shouldn’t we be making the case for having culture embedded into the LEP, rather than setting up a separate LCP? Many (but not all) of the LEP areas will have strong cultural and creative clusters, businesses and organisations, which could play an important role in the realisation of their economic objectives. The case for cultural and creative engagement needs to be made forcefully, and should be reflected in the business plans and governance models of the LEPs. Creating a sub-committee or forum which can feed into the LEP decision-making process would seem to be a sensible way of co-ordinating this input. In some cases, this may be supported or assisted by a stand-alone partnership, bringing together cultural agencies, organisations and practitioners.
But please let’s not go down the road of establishing administrative mechanisms for their own sake. It would be interesting to know, for example, if there has ever been an evaluation of the Regional Cultural Consortia or whether, as I suspect, they simply diverted everyone’s attention for a couple of years (actually six years) while the more important decisions were being made by the RDAs.
It seems foolhardy to be looking to set up yet another mechanism, when we could be making the case for having culture written into the core operations of what appear to be the main vehicles for economic development.