Place matters: Greater Manchester, culture and ‘levelling up’

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Place matters: Greater Manchester, culture and ‘levelling up’

© Photo: Box on the Docks at MediaCity UK, Salford

By Benjamin Dunn
Abigail Gilmore


In this article we examine how values-led partnerships between local government and the cultural sector in Greater Manchester have allowed for a place-based response to the impacts of the pandemic, and what this means for the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

In recent research published by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) we argue that ‘place matters’ in the allocation and distribution of funding, raising questions about the efficacy of current funding models as tools to address place-based structural inequalities and level up the competition for resources both between and within places.

Here we consider the ways in which partnerships between local government and the cultural sector in Greater Manchester have facilitated a place-based response to the impacts of the pandemic and summarise the implications of this analysis for the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Drawing on interviews with policy makers and cultural leaders across the region’s combined and district authorities, we highlight the role of the cultural sector in supporting a values-led discourse of collaboration and response, and identify recommendations for how local and regional authorities might address the challenge of levelling up.

Place and policy: interconnections with(in) Greater Manchester

As Victoria Barker (2019) has observed, ecological or ecosystems approaches have come to the fore in policy discussion as ways to conceptualise the intersection between cultural and economic development agendas at local and national levels. They have particular relevance to this discussion since they differentiate between the economic, outcome-driven imperatives of industrial strategies, and place-based strategies, characterised by interconnection, inclusion, and locally determined diversity of scale, interest, and ambition.

An ecosystems approach in Greater Manchester can be traced back to the cultural strategies of the Combined Authority and Manchester City Council (MCC). For our interviewees, the language of ecology provided a specific response to the impacts of the pandemic, articulating models of cross-organisational and cross-sectoral practice that emerged under lockdown, and a broadly non-competitive ethos that was seen as the foundation of sector and city recovery. As one interviewee explained:

We shouldn't try and rebuild what we had before, I guess is what I'm getting at. I think if we've learned things or collaborated or done things differently, we should … use it as an opportunity to be creative about what we build back.

Significantly, practices associated with the region’s ecosystems response are typically situated at the periphery of formalised policy and strategic discussion, suggesting a departure from or extension to the pre-pandemic cultural infrastructure. As one interviewee noted: “I don't think it’s translated into policy really. It's just translated to action”. Local authorities across the region reported the suspension of strategic objectives during the pandemic and a reliance on core values to inform decision-making. Local policy responses turned their attention to the support of artists and cultural organisations who, in turn, were seen as the instruments with which to address the unfolding impacts of the pandemic at a local level. As one local authority representative explained:

The flipside of that is just absolute respect and pride, really, in the sector in terms of how quickly it understood the limitations and worked against those to find a route through to supporting communities. So, I know from a local level we've had organisations that have committed themselves to the community support movement, whether that's with isolation calls, providing food, as part of partnership approaches to providing online content, providing hard arts activities - packs and things like that ... It really brought people together in terms of thinking about how we can reach communities.

Though, as other research on this project indicates, the civic turn is not unique to cultural organisations in Greater Manchester, what is notable from our interviews is the consistency of this approach across the region, with the cultural sector response repeatedly reiterating the combined authority’s commitment to place-based policy delivery in response to the pandemic.

Culture as community

Recent research by the Institute for Community Studies examines the context and ambitions of 'levelling up', highlighting the failure of major economic interventions to engage meaningfully with communities as part of broader efforts to address inequality. Specifically, the research reveals the overlooked challenge of ‘within-place’ inequalities, and the untapped role of communities as stakeholders and drivers of place-based change. In the context of Greater Manchester, historic partnerships between the cultural sector and local authorities have played a significant role in supporting a coordinated response to the localised impacts of the pandemic and their implications for communities.

For example, in response to the policy vacuum associated with the first months of the pandemic and sector-wide concern about the financial precarity for the freelance cultural workforce, thirteen cultural organisations from across the city region collaborated to establish the GM Artist Hub, an emergency resource designed to offer support and advice to freelance and self-employed cultural workers. As a representative explained, the Hub models “a commitment to collective responsibility” that underlines the role of place-based knowledges, networks, and policies in securing the freelance workforce. Though the Hub has coordinated significant financial support through a series of bursaries, micro-commissions, and seed funding, the remit of partner organisations extends beyond a purely economic response:

[Freelancers] haven’t just lost income, they’ve also lost support. They’ve lost relationships. They’ve lost their ability to draw on us to understand what the bigger picture might look like… So, we need to visibly come together to be available to this community that we have a responsibility to as people who hold the resources that they often have relied on.

Initiated by The Lowry, the Hub brings together organisations of significantly different resource, experience, and scale. As one interviewee explained, the project’s values-led priorities were essential to addressing the needs and experiences of the freelance community:

It removed the hierarchy from our organisations and that changed the nature of conversation, and meant that we could support each other in a way that’s quite difficult if you bring lots of other baggage to the table.

A further example is the Salford Culture and Place Partnership (SCPP), which launched their ‘Suprema Lex’ strategy the week before the first national lockdown in March 2020. This approach explicitly formalises a values-led model of partnership working that links cultural organisations of varying scales in strategic conversation with corporate and commercial partners and local authority representatives. Already aligned with a place-based mission, the partnership adapted to the pandemic by focusing on the potential of public space. Projects such as Box on the Docks and Mystery Bird mobilised the shared resources of the partnership to deliver cultural opportunities that opened up public spaces in the city for Salford residents negotiating lockdown. Targeting familiar environments, including neighbourhood centres, residential areas and Salford Quays, a waterfront corporate and commercial development, the partnership commissioned work from local artists that promoted new ways of engaging with these spaces, inviting residents to shape how they are used and understood as part of the social and cultural landscape of the city.

As one representative for Salford City Council observed, culture’s role in these contexts is concerned with the “democratisation of the public realm” as residents and communities are encouraged to take greater ownership over the spaces in their cities. Crucially, the partnership model allows a diversity of interests and stakeholders to contribute towards this ambition, providing a framework through which resources from corporate partners such as the BBC and Peel Media combine with those of the cultural partners to facilitate a local-authority led place-based agenda.

Networks have played a significant role in the region’s response to the pandemic, operating as sites of redistribution, governance and support, bridging gaps in national funding programmes such as the Cultural Recovery Fund and mobilising resources for local places and communities. Beyond their strategic value, professional networks have also offered an important response to what interviewees have identified as a mental health or wellbeing crisis for the cultural workforce itself. As one cultural manager explained:

It’s been hard, you know - there have been tears, and having others you can talk to who are going through challenging stuff as well has been really invaluable.


There is, therefore, a case for targeted capacity building for cultural networks and bridge organisations to strengthen their role in facilitating place-focused partnerships in towns and cities. Furthermore, we propose that the formal integration of culture within plans for 'levelling up' offers a mechanism to link economic intervention with values-led models of governance and redistribution that directly benefit places and communities.

The Greater Manchester case study also raises questions, however. The above examples were part of an emergency response, and there is uncertainty about the durability of these models once the sector begins to reopen in earnest. While some partnerships, like the SCPP, are protected by a formal agreement, others are aligned with what one interviewee described as a “coalition of the willing” – whether they have a lasting impact on inequality in the region will depend on continued, formalised support from local authorities and central government. More broadly, success in the region builds on longer-term success in attracting investment, related in no small part to city-regional devolution and strong political support for culture.

Levelling up funds have been identified to address place-based inequalities, however the same structural deficits are likely to impact on the capacity of towns, cities and regions to make their case for investment, particularly in relation to non-statutory sectors such as arts, culture and heritage. In the absence of any clear metrics that might establish an outcomes-driven case for ‘levelling up’ culture, our findings demonstrate a need to engage closely with sector and community leadership, looking within as well as between places and identify values-led partnerships to coordinate culture-led recovery as a lever for inclusive change for places and communities.

This article is part of a wider research programme led by the Centre for Cultural Value in collaboration with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and The Audience Agency. This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 rapid rolling call.

Published: 2021
Resource type: Research