Revisiting Coventry

John Newbigin

In a note sent to me just after our visit to Coventry, Jonothan Neelands said

“Culture is neither a tool for regeneration nor gentrification and instead a way of connecting and strengthening communities. It’s not just about economic impact in terms of tourism, growth and employment; it’s also about the economic value of stronger communities, inclusive participation and growth, health and wellbeing.”

The oath of citizenship in Periclean Athens (550BC) required citizens to promise to “leave the city richer and more beautiful than I found it”.

The Greek reference came to my mind because of Jonothan’s allusion to Coventry’s ‘City of Culture 2021’ initiative being a kind of Trojan horse – smuggling arts and culture into civic life in a way that catches people unawares.  If a city council announced “we’re going to have a year of the Arts” most people would assume it was nothing to do with them.  If the city said “we’re going to do a major rebranding exercise” they would be attacked for a profligate and pointless use of public money.  But the City of Culture project has somehow managed to sneak its way past all that because it starts with place and people’s desire to be proud of their home town and feel it to be a place worth living in.


Sarah Windrum explained how, in their LEP discussions, they’d chosen to treat ‘digital creative’ as a ‘state of mind’ rather than a precise definition of a bit of the economy.  That seems eminently sensible – after all, the ‘creative industries’ is itself a hopelessly woolly way of identifying a sector of the economy.  In fact, it’s not really a definition at all – it’s a branding exercise to give political profile to an eclectic jumble of trades and professions that the banks don’t take seriously.   It’s a short-hand description.  One of the things I like about Coventry’s approach (if I’ve got it right) is that it starts not with definitions about culture and creativity but simple descriptions – What do people do?  What are their circumstances? How can culture make things better?

So, a good starting point to thinking about culture and its relationship to economic or social wellbeing might be ‘go for description – who’s there?, what’s there?, what do they do?, what would they like to do more of?, what would they like to be good at?’

Mike Whitby used the phrase “our great provincial cities” three times in his brief talk.  What was he describing?  One of the things that made those provincial cities of the Victorian era ‘great’ was that they each had a clear area of expertise that made them distinctive  – Sheffield was steel, Sunderland was shipbuilding, Derby was rail engineering, Nottingham was lace, Hull was fish, Manchester was cotton mills … etc.  And the important thing about those defining characteristics was that they meant something to everyone – the owners of the yards and mills as well as the people who worked in them, or even those who just experienced the noise and the pollution they generated.  At school, kids were taught which city did what.   Those activities defined the place and people.

What’s to distinguish one city from another now when they’ve all got the same dreary chainstores and franchise restaurants in their High Street, the same out-of-town superstores on their fringes and the same tacky clusters of Barratt ‘executive homes’. Even being ‘City of Culture’ may prove to be no more than a short-term buzz.

Perhaps one of the problems in finding a cultural identity for a place is that our whole approach to culture has become so transactional.  Instead of description our cultural agencies have to focus on prescription – where’s your mission statements, impacts, KPIs, targets, evaluations, strategies by well-paid consultants?

No useful purpose

So, how brilliant that it was down to an Arup engineer to rhapsodise about the value of playing and doing things “that serve no useful purpose” – in his words.  Government funding agencies wouldn’t give you a penny if you said that was your plan – but a world-class engineering firm recognizes its value to the kids who are playing, to their own staff who are playing with the kids and – as he said – to the sparking of great new engineering concepts.

The economist Diane Coyle, in her book about GDP, says – my paraphrasing – any activity that can be measured by the metrics of productivity, i.e. output per hour, is best done by a robot – and probably soon will be.  Then she goes on “What humans excel at is WASTING TIME, playing, experimenting, creating, exploring.  None of these fare well under the scrutiny of productivity … but they are the foundations of long-term growth.”  I like to think she meant the long-term growth of individuals as well as of the economy.  It makes obvious sense.  No wonder we love the story of Newton snoozing in his orchard, Archimedes lounging in his bath – major conceptual breakthroughs achieved while doing nothing in particular.

‘Description’ begins to shape ‘state of mind’ – and ‘state of mind’ creates the possibility of new perception, new ambition, new possibility. It’s partly about logic but mostly about mood, it can feed the inconsequential things that maybe do start giving a place a sense of identity and pride.  And as any economist will tell you, growth is driven by confidence and optimism.

So, reflecting on Jonothan’s note to me after our day in Coventry, maybe that’s the economic value of stronger communities.

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