Without grassroots, independent culture there is no culture. And without culture, there’s a gaping hole in our economy and society.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, I have had a continuous, resounding, repeating anxiety when it comes to thinking about our cultural sector (when I say culture, I mean nightlife, pubs, clubs, restaurants, festivals and the arts).
My fear has been this – “What if only the strong survive?”
I’ve spent a long time leading, investigating, thinking about and being a part of regeneration projects, creative development and innovation. I’ve seen the big masterplans for city regeneration, the £30 million “knock the old structures down” designs and the development corporation’s “build the business park and they will come” ideas. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. We do and will always need the big top down approaches, but what nearly always works, anywhere, across the globe from Bilbao to Brixton, Belfast to Berlin is culture and cultural regeneration.
I have come to believe that the most important players in any economy but particularly within our cultural economy are the small, the independent and often grassroots businesses. They are the innovators and the entrepreneurs. You know the ones, the arts venue built with love and a bit of MDF, the street food business that trawled the streets for years before getting its first shop, the micro-pub that is now the semi-permanent home of both your best friend and your favourite Gin/locally brewed beer. It’s the theatre in a disused building that brought you the play that then headlined at Edinburgh. It’s the old pub that your heroes played in when they were nobodies and the place most of us still gig in, whilst trying to ‘make it’. Basically – the soul of towns and villages and cities.
The ‘who we are’ of Great Britain, not the ‘what we are’ or ‘what we produce’ The character, the personality and the heartbeat of the places we love and call home.
Let’s look at the numbers: hospitality employs 3.2 million people, produces £130 billion towards GDP every year. The cultural and creative sector produces £10.8billion a year to the UK economy and generates a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs. When the Hospitality Union started calling for support early on in the Covid crisis, estimating 2 million jobs could be lost UK wide, I was one of the first in the North East to join their call, and I coordinated a North East response via Food and Drink North East. We got some of what we asked for but not all. When the Venues Trust and Music Trust launched their campaign for a cultural rescue plan, I quickly backed their call and added my voice to their campaign. I was pleased the government responded; but, just like so many interventions in the government’s response to the crisis, they have been slow and geared towards the big companies.
When I heard just this week about the closure of The Welly and Polar Bear in Hull, and Gorilla and the Deaf Institute in Manchester, my heart sank and my anxieties heightened. When I heard the silent mutterings about a known and loved eatery desperately worried they won’t earn back their Covid Crisis loan and unsure of how to keep their landlord at bay, I felt deeply uneasy. You see, to me, the big institutions and the multi-nationals stand on the shoulders of our small independent businesses. They come because someone came before – big corporations are rarely the pioneers, they often aren’t the risk takers and rarely are they the creators and innovators. But for a place to thrive you need all of these things. So whatever is done, at a local, regional and national level, if we don’t favour the small, if we don’t write policies with them in mind, then we may as well say goodbye to all that makes us strong. To all that makes us, us.
But the problem is, the Conservatives rarely seem to favour the small, they don’t tend to make decisions with the little guy in mind. Just look at some of their recent controversies in the Jenrick cash for favours or the type of schemes and companies being supported by our current Conservative Tees Valley Mayor. It’s the big, the flashy, the mate of the mate of at the £50,000 fundraising dinner, the headline winning proposal that has more gloss than grit. But I have come to expect little less. They are after all a party funded by the big, the rich and the powerful. They pay lip service to the small and sometimes they do ok, throwing a little cash about here and there, but when it comes down to it, when the rubber hits the road, will it be Joe’s Gin Bar and Lula’s DIY music hall that weathers the storm and gets their support, or will it be the Multi-national land owner who is second cousin of the PM? I hope I am wrong but the signs so far say we stand on shaky ground.