Fyson on ... culture's role in creating social sustainability

If social sustainability is to mean anything, it has to encompass the cultural life of the community.

Whether defined by traditional music, literature, theatre and film, or in the popular arts found in festivals and events, or in sport in its prestigious or mass participation manifestations, culture pervades and shapes social life.

It must therefore be of concern to planning. Recognising this, culture secretary Tessa Jowell last year launched a consultation exercise on the role of culture in regeneration by declaring that "success for us will be when culture is as important to planners, developers and government when looking at new projects as the economy and jobs currently are".

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has been pursuing a formula for culture-related regeneration that embraces heritage, design, mixed-use development, participation and places' uniqueness. The list dovetails well with place-makers' concerns, but subsequent discussions seem to have emphasised how vulnerable creative activities are when spending commitments are being scrutinised. Culture does not come with guaranteed returns. While the department can show economic benefits in jobs and revenue from past successes, it knows that this is not predictable enough for dependable budgeting.

The DCMS acknowledges the need to train practitioners, share best practice and produce "a tool kit of ideas". But above all it believes that it must "improve the evidence base" of the case for culture by establishing "quantitative and qualitative measures" that are coherent and robust enough to justify official commitment. Some regard measurement as the antithesis of cultural pursuits that enhance quality of life. But without meeting this challenge, culture and the creative arts will find it hard to attract resources.

Meanwhile, councils find themselves no longer required to produce separate local cultural strategies but are expected to incorporate them into their community plans. Cultural targets are in danger of being put even further down the list of priorities. The government wants everyone to shout louder for cultural activity and encourages stronger leadership to make the case.

The trouble is that too often arguments for spending on culture sound like special pleading.

Culture South East has responded by providing a guide to integrating culture with community planning, observing that it is important for local authorities to maintain cultural services departments. They should be the leading voice for culture in local partnerships. If local development frameworks fail to reflect the enriching quality of culture in all its diversity, communities big and small will be the poorer for it.

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