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Cultural infrastructure - the key to sustainable cities?

(Image above from the London Lumiere Festival, courtesy of the GLA)

'Museums cannot solve all the social problems of our cities...' stated Tate Director, Stephen Wingfield, speaking about the value of cultural infrastructure in cities, at our London City Hall forum this week.

'Funding is always a major issue, and we could always spend it several times over with the amount of ideas coming through the organisation. We do the big popular shows, and we work with big business, but we are going to do a big project with film director Steve McQueen, bringing in 600 school kids a day through Tate Britain over 6 months, and it is going to cost us a lot of money to bring in as many children who wouldn't normally get to visit an art gallery or even come to central London.

'We are prioritising that over other things but we think it's really important, and we have put in the big fund raising events to pay for it.' Tate has invited every Year 3 class in London to take part in creating the largest group portrait ever made, with a Tate photographer visiting schools to take portrait shots for the artist to make an artwork which will sit at the heart of the nation's collection.'

Stephen, in his role as CFO and Head of Estates, supervises all of Tate's five public museum sites around the UK as well as the retail and restaurant provision at those locations. He explained that the retail and food offering is successful because it is linked to the art and cultural content at the galleries. Could this be the blueprint for the sustainability of Britain's ailing high streets - that building culture into the regeneration plan in a committed and deep way, would attract visitors back to city and town centres?

Pam Alexander, one of the Mayor of London's cultural ambassadors spoke about the impact that City Hall's cultural infrastructure plan will have in turning round the dwindling numbers of in-bound visitors to the capital.

'The plan provides the evidence base for what we've lost - in music venues for instance. We need powers to stop this from happening again. Each London borough now has a night time economy plan in the making, and this will have planning consequences, for instance on Article 4 Direction as this allows councils to restrict Permitted Development which has recently favoured conversion of commercial premises such as pubs - often used by creative organisations - into residential.

'If you look at the top-end, the East Bank will create for the east what the West End has always had. We are also developing the Creative Land Trust which will try and secure land for the arts and creative industries as there is always a challenge when you are trying to create more land value to fund regeneration. You need to make sure that as you bring in the corporates that help to fund regeneration that you allow space for the creative and cultural industries'.

Sheffield City Council is developing a place-driven campaign to regenerate this industrial city for the modern visitor, home-owner and worker. Chief Executive of the city council, John Mothersole, explained that the city has its own unique history which can be seen in the historic layout of the streets and this is being retained in the city plan. Like Liverpool which has re-invented its visitor economy through festivals, Sheffield has developed an important and different festival offering, which includes the world's second-ranked documentary film festival. The 2019 Sheffield Doc/Fest opened in June with Asif Kapadia's 'Diego Maradona' and included talks by Nick Hornby, Paul Greengrass and Chidera Eggerue (aka 'The Slum Flower').

Our creative regeneration discussion also focussed on the importance of cultural infrastructure for towns. Kevin Cowin, Development Director at Mace Group, described the initiatives that are planned for the regeneration of Hertfordshire's post-war new town, Stevenage, which despite first class employers like GSK and Airbus nearby and close connections to London, needs work to bring visitors and home owners back into the centre.

Kevin said: 'The starting point is about place. Stevenage is 70 years old and there is no night time economy while the peripheral leisure and retail parks draw people away from the centre. We are planning to put in 1,500 new homes, a civic hub with a state-of-the-art library and new health centre. We are re-locating the bus station next to the train station to create a joined-up transport hub. With the council we are also working on encouraging new small businesses and artists to take up space, so that Stevenage can have its own creative quarter.'

Read more about the cultural infrastructure discussion from our forum in our report to be published shortly.

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