Localism and cultural ownership

I spoke at a great conference yesterday, called Cultural Equalities Now, organised by the Diversity in Heritage Group at the British Museum. It was one of those occasions where you think ‘If I’d been to that conference before today, I would have known more and presented better than I did’. In particular, I learned a lot from Mark O’Neill, mentioned in Nick Poole’s account of museum ethics, and in general I learned from the combined contributions in response to each other, for example, from Lola Young, John Vincent and Tony Butler. The debate clarified for me a number of ideas I had been confused about, to do with the instrumentalism/intrinsic debate and to do with the tautology of cultural diversity, which will no doubt emerge in later posts.

Appropriately on the day that the Localism Bill became law, I was asked to speak about localism, Big Society and community ownership of cultural and heritage organisations. I promised that I would post my notes, so here they are:

I want to draw out some of what I think are the most salient points about Big Society, Localism, and the ownership of cultural organisations, referring to two case studies in my own neighbourhood, Southwark and Lewisham.

A salient thing to explore is the background to how local cultural services are being affected. From my experience with these councils:

–          most of the closure stories in my area are rooted in councils seeing assets as disposable, playing the game of property development, looking to sell or lease land and heritage buildings either to private or community-run groups.

–          when they review their opportunities, Councils place a low value on cultural services as deliverers of social goods, but on the other hand, they hope that others will value their social goods enough to want to take them over.

David Cameron’s vision for the Big Society and Localism is all about enabling: “We are breaking down the barriers that stop councils..[and]..groups getting things done for themselves.” But, what actually are the barriers that stop us getting things done in our sector? Are the Government’s changes lifting the barriers we actually experience, or only the barriers that prevent private companies making profits?

Certainly I think there are some positive things about the Localism Bill but there are reasons to be cautious and critical. A key change in the Bill is that any service currently provided by a supplier can be challenged by any other organisation, and a procurement exercise carried out and if the challenger can offer a better value service it must be awarded to them. Polly Toynbee pointed out this means your school can be taken over by an education company, and that the Localism Bill has no provision for local people to contribute to the procurement decision. It’s good to see the move to allow community groups more time to fundraise to take over a service if they are in competition with private buyers. On the other hand, however, this provision is really of use because it’s less likely now that Councils will be able to let communities run public amenities at peppercorn rents, and that if they want to keep them, they will have to buy them or prove that they can raise money to revamp them just as a property developer would.

I’ll describe two examples I’ve been involved in.

First, the Livesey Museum for Children
The Big Society isn’t new. The first employer to implement co-ownership and workers’ self-education, 120 years ago, was George Livesey. He was benefactor of the Camberwell library, later to become the Livesey Museum for Children, on the Old Kent Road. This was closed in 2008 because Southwark Council felt the costs of employing creative learning managers were less worthwhile than the ongoing costs of keeping the building secure against vandals. Actually, they wanted to sell off the building until we (the Friends group formed from the campaign) pointed out Livesey’s bequest meant it wasn’t theirs to sell. There was quite a bit of interest, for example from the MLA, because this could be an experiment to see if community transfer of assets could provide a model for other museums threatened by local authority cuts. This could have been nice except that to date there isn’t a model to demonstrate, as the Council chose not to accept the community’s proposal to run the museum, which was underwritten by a housing and social care trust, and the Charity Commission rejected the Council’s proposal that it be converted into theatre rehearsal space, and so the building remains locked after nearly 4 years. It’s important that the Bequest stated that it must be a free learning resource, open to all in perpetuity. This openness to all is, in my view, a crucial element in generating cultural value. Even if we had been given the chance, we may have struggled alone as, inevitably, anger at its closure may not easily convert into drive and imagination from local supporters. Now there’s a Labour council, open to proposals but as far as I know, none is strong enough and the Livesey friends members are now focused on other causes.

New Cross People’s Library
Lewisham cut funding to 5 libraries and allowed other companies or groups to bid to run them. New Cross got left behind. But, now it’s temporarily being run as the People’s Library by a group of campaigners. Underpinning it is a charity called Bold Vision, set up to incubate local projects that combine culture, learning, food and social capacity.  Actually, NXP Library is a working title because it can’t call itself a library in its new independent form, because funders expect that libraries should be funded by local authorities as statutory provision. There aren’t ready streams of funding available. So, we have to reinvent it as a creative learning centre, or a literacy shop. It’s in a shop on a main street, which is good for passing trade. However, Lewisham council sees it as an opportunity, no longer as a library, now that they’ve withdrawn funding: It’s on a high street in a shop premises so they are going to charge a going commercial rent of £25k a year, which may be impossible to raise on top of other running costs. So, at a time when the Empty Shops movement is turning shops into cultural spaces, it’s ironic that we’re having to turn a publicly-funded cultural space into more of a self-sustaining shop.

So, back to Cameron’s barriers to getting things done. There are two levels of barrier. One is the superstructures of power and wealth generation, which I don’t have time to go into. The other is to do with people’s energy. I’ve found in my experience that main barrier to getting things done is when a group doesn’t have enough drive or capacity, mainly because it doesn’t have enough common cause. A lack of common cause happens when:

– people disagree about an emphasis on either rescuing the assets or sustaining the cultural programme which could possibly be independent of the space (and just to note, possibly now also more digitally delivered)

– some people can’t gain kudos – the more modest or generic the cause, the more difficult it is to gain kudos.

– fundamental disagreements about whether we’re serving people or culture, about who we are serving. It’s not always straightforward: Those favouring working class interests can sometimes be culturally conservative, and might conceive middle class cultural radicals as elitists, even if they’re committed to social justice. It can be hard to explain why participation in difficult or experimental culture can be accessible and empowering for all.

– a project emerges out of a conflict situation like a campaign to save a museum with different proposals for its use. You are going to end up with winners and losers, and most people will lose energy.

– disagreements about money: people who say it is impossible without a cushion and long-term projections, and people who say a great idea will enthuse and attract money

This last also relates to a key practical problem: That you can’t easily get funding & permissions unless you are solid & constituted and have a reputation. A campaign group hastily constituted to save a museum won’t have that, even if its individuals have decades of experience between them. That often means partnering with or allowing an organisation to run the show, but, they may not have the right kinds of local or specialist knowledge or affiliation.

There’s little wrong with the Big Society principles of agency, resilience and democracy. The problem is that the persisting system in Britain, underpinned by global superstructures, cannot allow these things to flourish. What kind of Big Society, if it becomes less regulated by law and more led by corporations or ideological interest groups, can be trusted to do good when the unsustainable exploitation of people and resources for profit is held to be the ultimate good? To challenge this, we need to see a more participatory democracy enacted at every level, and in every institution, not just at the most local.

So cultural organisations, if they are increasingly to be run by people, need people to have agency, urgency, enthusiasm & innovation. These are exactly the qualities that cultural orgs actually bring about, so there’s need for a circular growth, a new kind of supply chain, where bigger fish fund orgs to develop those capacities in people who in turn can help run the orgs.  I want us to override that fight between whether we serve either people or culture. We should unite around our common cause, with similar missions to focus on transforming ways we make decisions about how to live well together, helping us take a long view, to learn from the past and helping us operate on registers that are to do with beauty, complexity, mystery, empathy and invention.


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