Making the case for culture

After many years working in a leisure environment, Derrick Anderson explains why he is keeping the faith with culture and why in recent years so many others have joined the cause

Baltic, Gateshead
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead

Sage, Gateshead
The Sage Gateshead


I have completed my first year in Lambeth. I have spent six months lobbying my local MPs (Kate Hoey, Keith Hill and culture secretary Tessa Jowell – a formidable trio). I have written several lengthy letters to Steve Bundred at the Audit Commission, all of which have been very positive given the nature of my immediate frustrations. I have canvassed the full spectrum of professional bodies involved in culture with a view to pressing for changes in the comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) culture block, in an attempt to make the indicators more relevant and reflective of local priorities. Why have I been doing this? Well, notwithstanding the fact that Lambeth council has improved in six out of eight of the main CPA categories, I was told some months ago that the authority, having failed in relation to 50% of the indicators in the library section of the culture block, would be downgraded from two stars to one star on the back of a ‘rule’ established by the Audit Commission some years ago.

At the end of February my worst nightmare unfolds: Lambeth is “officially the worst council in London” screams the headline in the Evening Standard. “One year on and Audit Commission says Lambeth council getting worse” headlines the South London Press. Every letter of complaint, from failures in bin collection to late tenancy repairs, now signs off with comments like “no wonder you’re the worst council in London”. All this because of an Audit Commission rule around a handful of indicators.

What’s this all got to do with promoting culture as a critical part of the armoury of local government? Well, the relative priority of services is usually a reflection of what the leaders of the council (politicians and chief executive) think, and here’s the relevance. Given all that I’ve been through in relation to the inadequacies of the culture PIs and subsequent devastating impact on the organisation, you wouldn’t expect me to be a fervent champion for public investment in culture would you? But I have to say this is far from the truth – my faith remains steadfast!

To renounce the faith at this stage would be nothing short of bigotry. The fact remains that culture and related developments have been central to my personal and professional life, to the extent that I am who I am and where I am as a direct result of decades of engagement, as practitioner and administrator, in sport, the arts, media and the tourism industry. I entered the world of public service in order to make a material difference to people (especially those most disadvantaged); culture and creative industries have helped me to do that, not just with individuals but with whole communities in the past. My work in some of the most difficult areas in Birmingham through Action Sport in the 1980s, through to more recent interventions in neighbourhoods in Wolverhampton New Deal for Communities (NDC) area are good examples.

Of all the services provided by local government, investment in cultural activities has the most direct bearing on the quality of life of those in our communities. Jude Kelly (artistic director of Southbank Centre) makes the point when she states “culture like education is a method of releasing the potential of the individual”. But clearly this is not just true about the individual. Culture and investment in creative activity can provide, in our day-to-day work, a means of liberating community voices and allowing community groups to look afresh at the powerful contribution they can make to the shaping of place and the building of cohesion. My background in community arts and the community sports movement (which both have their genesis in the inner city struggles of the 1980s), also reflect this perspective.

Local government itself seems to be in a couple of different places with respect to the value of investment in culture. Clearly, councils like Gateshead with the Angel of the North and its renaissance built around what might be described as initially risky investments (Baltic and The Sage Gateshead) have already crossed the Rubicon. Others have crossed the line often without knowing it. Through the increasing number of leisure PFIs and culture provision borne of Section 106 agreements on the back of housing and retail developments several cultural icons have been brought to life, such as Stratford Library in London. However, still too many leaders and chief executives haven’t yet got there. Why? Is it that the evidence base just isn’t robust enough on the value added that can be created by investment in culture? Or is it that we simply don’t communicate strongly enough the value which can be demonstrated locally. Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council has managed, through rigorous audit, to show that for every £1 the council spends on culture, this has brought a return of £17 from elsewhere*.

Furthermore, if these truisms and the evidence to support them have been around for the last two or three decades, why then do we still find ourselves in 2007 surrounded by so much scepticism? Perhaps there simply hasn’t been enough national debate about the subject. Several authorities can give testimony, from their perspectives, to the lack of integration of culture into mainstream government strategic thinking. They evidence the difficulty in building cultural proposals into their local area agreements and local strategic partnership arrangements, for example. The Scottish experience provides us with a lesson that we might wish to pay more attention to in England. The draft Culture (Scotland) Bill published by the Scottish Executive in December 2006 clearly acknowledges the role of cultural activity in helping local authorities improve delivery in functions like education, social services and economic development.

It seems to me that in getting fellow chief executives to take a fresh look at investment in culture, we need to debunk some of the sense of risk that may be in their thoughts about standing up for the cause, issues such as the lack of data and evidence about the value added culture can offer or the potential for political backlash from investment in risky creative endeavour. The case for investment in these kinds of areas has been well put and in addition to this there is an increasing evidence base from customer satisfaction surveys up and down the country that lack of investment in culture is one of the top issues of concern among members of the public.

I have had the good fortune to preside, as chief executive, over boroughs which have built or rekindled their reputations around iconoclastic sporting and cultural provision. In Wolverhampton, the world-renowned football club was saved and rebuilt with the help of the local authority. A new all-weather horse-racing track (one of only two of its kind in the country) was built with significant extra provision for community use. Prior to that, my spell in Yorkshire bore witness to the turnaround of the fortunes of central Bradford with the introduction of an IMAX film centre and the refurbished Alhambra theatre. Here in Lambeth I can of course boast the Southbank complex, the London Eye, the Old Vic, Clapham Common and Brixton centre – the undisputed heart of cultural diversity in the UK!

There is a simple test which establishes added value derived from cultural investment. Think of your area without your cultural icons and to ask yourself the question: how strong a sense of place would you and your citizens be able to recognise in their absence?

I rest my case.


Derrick Anderson CBE is the chief executive of Lambeth Council. He has twenty years’ management experience in local government and more than twenty-five years in the public sector. He is also a non-executive director on the Home Office general executive board, vice president of Youth Clubs, board member of Sport England London and a committee member of VSO UK Committees

This article was originally published in Inspiring our ambitions: sport, art, culture and place, edited by Derrick Anderson and Martyn Allison (SFI, May 2007). The SOLACE Foundation Imprint (SFI) was launched in October 2005. Electronic versions of the booklets that have been published to date can be downloaded from Hard copies of each edition are distributed with the Guardian’s Public magazine.

* Footnote: reference to the Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council Research can be found in Robin Hooper’s article in the SFI document mentioned above.



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