Edition number 3; dateline 26 October 2007

Keeping an eye on cultural investment

I’m delighted that we are able to include Jude Kelly’s essay on how culture creates a sense of place for communities in this issue of The Leisure Review. A ten-minute stroll along the Thames past the buildings of the Southbank Centre, where Jude is artistic director, and through the cultural melange that is London’s South Bank will quickly demonstrate exactly what she means. Jude’s argument is that people need space to engage and share experience, and that culture helps them do it; perhaps more than that – that culture is the way and the place in which this happens. She makes the point that people involved in cultural production, whether professional or amateur, are very much part of the mainstream and that leisure is now very much part of the mainstream when it comes to considerations of what it takes to rebuild and regenerate the major spaces of our urban centres. As a society we don’t deny the importance of education after centuries of evidence of its impact; why do we question the role of culture?

Also in this issue, Kay Adkins gives some insight into some of the hurdles that community leisure projects can face in the seemingly endless fight for funding. No one is denying that we have to be fairly confident that public money is being spent wisely and well but could we at least acknowledge that no one is necessarily engaged in an act of potential criminality just because they want a bit of money for their sports club. And while we’re about it, could we agree at what age we join the ranks of the ‘older person’?

It is always exasperating for leisure professionals struggling with their budgets or for volunteers struggling with the funding applications to notice in the newspapers what we as a nation do spend our money on. Some of the figures one sees in the headlines associated with major projects are quite staggering but often much of the editorial outrage is directed to a few grand spent on some experimental art installation. This prompted The Leisure Review to instigate the Olympic Price Watch, an occasional feature that pops up in our World of Leisure pages to highlight some of the things we spend billions on that are not related to the 2012 project.

I noticed the Home Office report on the need for a national CCTV strategy, published on Friday 19 October, with this in mind, although it wasn’t the expenditure figures that caught my eye as the news piece I saw did not mention costs. Nevertheless, the numbers were quite staggering. It seems that the Home Office and the police have no real idea how many CCTV cameras are operating in the UK – they think about four million – but they are confident that 80% of the pictures produced are too poor to be of much use and that most of the cameras are in the wrong place. Cameras tend to be used to tackle low-level, high-volume crime, monitoring street disorder, for example, rather than detecting crime. There is also the tendency for CCTV systems to become self-justifying sources of income generation.

A little surf throws up a few figures (with the usual caveats) that add something to the colour of the piece. Some 4.2m camera in the UK with estimates that between 1994 and 2004 between £4bn and £5bn was spent on installation and maintenance of CCTV systems. Some analysts are forecasting that the UK CCTV market will be worth £1.1bn in 2008. You do not have to be much of a statistical analyst to reckon that with four million cameras installed that the £4bn figure would not be too far wide of the mark and that if you add in the maintenance and monitoring sundries to the hardware a billion a year is not beyond reason.

Leaving aside the very real issues of personal liberties and the inabilities of politicians to recognise George Orwell’s 1984 as a dark warning instead of the manual for governance that they assume it to be, the CCTV phenomenon seems to be a complete negation of what leisure and culture seek to achieve on behalf of their communities. CCTV seeks to remove people from the public realm; in the first instance police officers, presumably on the grounds of cost, and then miscreants or, better yet, potential miscreants. They seek to control public space and prescribe what can happen in it, a complete contradiction, as Jude Kelly explains, of what happened in 1951 at the Festival of Britain.

And did I mention that they do not actually work? It seems that when it comes to funding and outcomes culture is held to a different set of standards, as if the whole leisure and cultural output of the nation is some sort of quaint indulgence permitted to make the place look attractive for visitors. While it seems to be perfectly acceptable to waste billions on CCTV or computer systems or aircraft or illegal military invasions, if one suggests that a few grand to run a development scheme or keep a museum open or maintain a park might be a good idea the reaction is a patronising smile, a slow shake of the head and a sheaf of performance indicators, inputs and outcomes, and business plans.

This is why the Olympics is important for the whole of leisure beyond sport. It is a massive project on a scale of expenditure that even the Ministry of Defence would be able to understand but with outcomes that they would find utterly inconceivable. Costs will rise, money will be spent, allegations will be made but we will get something in return: a new space for leisure, a new future for a huge part of the city, stories to tell, so many people to meet. Some will be inspired,  many will be engaged, millions will at least take notice of Britain’s biggest cultural event in half a century. It is not a bad investment when you think how many cameras it could buy.


Jonathan Ives

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