Is regeneration through culture the way forward for our ‘left behind’ places?  

Cultural projects are often hailed as the economic solution for struggling cities – but tackling skills gaps will do more to create jobs and boost wages

The role of culture in regeneration appears to be back on the radar. Hull’s designation as UK city of culture 2017 has sparked a flurry of articles on the economic benefits it will have. And the Conservative manifesto in the last election tapped into similar thinking, stating that the Tories will move cultural institutions out of London to help bring prosperity to other parts of the country. But what role does culture play in economic regeneration?

Cultural projects are often measured in terms of the economic impact they are going to have, but thorough evaluations do not back these claims up. The What Works Centre for Economic Growth has looked at the economic impact of large sports and culture events and facilities. It found very little evidence of positive impacts on the local economy in terms of jobs and wages, while it found that facilities may push up house prices in their immediate surroundings (benefiting home owners but not renters).

The fundamental challenge that struggling places face is to attract more business investment in high-skilled activities, which in turn will create more and better-paid jobs. One of the principal reasons they find this difficult to do is because they haven’t got the skilled workers that high-skilled businesses are looking for. The opening of a cultural institution doesn’t change this, as it doesn’t improve the skills of existing residents. It is also unlikely to attract-in skilled workers from elsewhere either, who will look for the availability of a job first, then weigh up the cultural offer of a place after.

This can be seen in a number of examples that have attempted to do this in the past. The Middlesbrough Museum of Modern Art, in the centre of Middlesbrough, is an impressive building, but a walk around its surrounding area suggests that it has done little to change the city’s economic performance. The same could be said for the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, and even the O2 Arena in London. Similarly, the impact of the Sage and the Baltic galleries in Gateshead, which cost a combined £115 million to build, is also unclear. While they may well have had an impact on the wider image of Newcastle, our previous research has shown that between 1998 and 2008 the immediate area round the galleries saw a reduction private sector jobs.

What must be stressed here is that there are many good reasons to opening new cultural institutions or hosting large cultural or sporting events that stretch far beyond economics. The problem is that these initiatives are often either held up as the answer to a place’s economic struggles, or are sold on the economic impact that they are going to have. Neither are a fair measurement for them.

Moreover, cultural projects are often envisaged and implemented in isolation to other policy initiative – which further minimises their impactor essentially amount to a case of the cart coming before the horse. Barcelona offers an example of how to get this process right, in the way that it incorporated the 1992 Olympics into a wider plan to regenerate the city which included improving skills and infrastructure. Similarly, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum was not conceived as a way to kick-start economic growth in the city, but instead came off the back of years of economic development to restructure the city’s economy.

As such, if the aim is to turn around struggling economies, increasing the job opportunities available and the money in the pockets of people living there, the evidence suggests that culture-led regeneration is unlikely to do the trick. If struggling places are to attract jobs, then they have to deal with the fundamental challenges that prevent high-skilled businesses investing in them. While the specifics will differ from place to place, skills is the biggest challenge in many of them – and this is where the primary focus needs to be.

Image credit: The Hepworth Wakefield by Stephen Bowler (CC by 2.0), see original image.

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Michael Bach
2 November 2017 14:08

The Design Museum in Kensington High Street exceeded its projected target of 650,000 in the first year but only 20% were prepared to pay for visiting an exhibition. Many will not need to make a return visit if the main purpose was to see the refurbished building. The impact on Kensington High Street has been imperceptible - it was supposed to have a regenerating effect. On the other hand, Hull will have had three times the visitors and UK City of Culture 2017 has rekindled investment and a burning pride in the city - although it was always there!


Jack Hemingway
2 November 2017 12:37

Stupid article - investment in culture should not only be evaluated by 'economic impact' - the social, educational and placemaking factors are of equal importance. Economic benefits of investment in culture are often not seen until many years down the line - but in my experience inward investment almost always follows culture if the investment is strategic and sustained!? The Middlesbrough Museum of Modern Art (MIMA) case study / reference is ridiculous and inaccurate - MIMA is part of the thriving Teesside University and provides a programme of arts / culture activities and outreach that the local population are immensely proud of and which is internationally recognised as world leaders for accessibility, community cohesion and inclusion.


Nigel Rose
2 November 2017 10:50

In general I agree with your blog. Manchester's many large cultural institutions are wonderful in their own right but have little role to play in addressing Manchester's long-term ingrained poverty as evidenced by some of the worst health stats in England. However, culture is about more than large institutions and I think you should have made that a lot clearer in your blog. At a community level cultural approaches do have a major role to play in bottom-up regeneration.


Jonathan Blackie
22 October 2017 16:23

Investment in culture helps the diversification of areas which have lost a significant part of their economic base. It encourages people with skills to stay and attracts new talent. The Directors of Baltic, Mima and Sage, Gateshead are a case in point. In the 'North East Case for Culture' we argued that support for culture creates a greater sense of distinctiveness in a place, based on cultural identity.

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