Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Final Version

Sticks and Stones and Serious Thought
A Swanage perspective on the Cultural Strategy

We applaud PDC for its document “Castles, Carnivals, Coast, Heath and Peoples” and its attempt to describe the culture in Purbeck. It does, however, draw some extraordinary conclusions which are at odds with its broad sweep. The main conclusion - support for a sports centre in Swanage - is admirable and necessary but detracts from the overall aim of producing a cultural strategy. This is not meant to be a rebuttal of the PDC document but, rather, aims to provide some ideas and positive thinking to flesh out a rather limited range of ideas.

However there are four main areas of contention:
1) We cannot agree with the narrowness of the strategy's definition of culture or with the parochial scope of the strategy itself. It does not accord with any known definition of culture and even falls short of the government’s own guidelines.
2) Consequently The strategy shows every sign of having been constructed backwards, as it were, with the aim of supporting and justifying particular existing medium term local objectives of PDC, without trying to come to grips with new ideas and thinking.
3) We consider that the strategy needs to be related to both PDC's vision statement and the policies of other public bodies. PDC was criticised last year for not identifying the means through which its vision is to be delivered. This strategy offers an opportunity to come to grips with this issue.
4) There needs to be attention to the economic value of culture and the relevance of tourism

The OED defines culture as.... "The training and refinement of mind, tastes and manners....... the intellectual side of civilization.” Anthropologists would say culture is .. "the combined understanding of a single group of people in contrast to any other.” In both cases it is to do with ideas, stories, arts. It ranges through architecture, scientific enquiry, spiritual enquiry and learning to barn dances and conversations at bus stops. It is the appreciation of the natural environment we live in and also an attempt to enrich that appreciation through art and education. Culture is the software that joins us together in our communities. It helps us understand who we are, how we got here and where we are going.
None of these definitions includes sport, health, youth offending, footpaths or other subjects which, whilst important, worthy and necessary, do not form part to the essence of culture. However, these peripheral ideas do have a bearing on the “Quality of Life” and, as the government does include some of them in its own definitions, it is fair for PDC to make use of some Quality of Life issues in its wider definition of culture.
In a sense, any activity that entails social interaction or aesthetic appreciation could be seen as cultural: An evening in the pub, a village fete, a walk on the cliffs, but we need to focus on some core values.
At the same time, however, it is not acceptable to reduce the definition of culture to “Leisure Sports and Recreation”. These ideas are not included in the government’s definition at the expense of actual cultural activities. It is also clear that these side issues are only included insofar as they contribute to the cultural life of the community. In other words, a test needs to be applied to developments to see if they actually are reflecting or contributing to cultural life. We may ask of a sports facility “how does it enhance or reflect the cultural life of the community?” If the answer is “It will be a venue for a local choir to rehearse” or “It will provide a base for a literature festival or be used for Adult Education classes” then, yes, it is a cultural facility. If it only provides sports, health or fitness facilities, then it is not.
Undoubtedly culture is a leisure activity for most people, but, as we discuss below, culture is also a significant, indeed essential, part of Purbeck's economy. Culture needs to be recognised as being at the centre of economic development and not diminished to a tactic for getting kids off the streets.

Purbeck people may have a concept of their own culture as an old fishing, quarrying, farming community. And even as a tourist venue with a culture of service. But there are few opportunities to record, respond and challenge the ideas of what it is actually like to be part of Purbeck culture in the 21st century.
The various cultures of Purbeck are as diverse as any in rural Britain today. There is the culture of the elderly, the hard-pressed farmer, the foreign language students, the incomers, the builders and developers, the alienated youth and so on. Most people belong to more than one culture.
These diverse cultural strands means that it much more difficult to define a Purbeck sense of identity. Communities are fragmented. Many incomers feel a lack of ownership of the area. This also applies to young people for whom the idea of living and growing up in Swanage has an entirely negative air. It is inevitable that young people entering tertiary education will move away but, beyond that, there is a feeling that to stay in Swanage during into adulthood means inevitable brain death.
It is one of the key jobs of a cultural strategy to identify those cultural strands and make sure that they are reflected and enriched.
PDC’s own figure demonstrate that a far greater percentage of the population engages in cultural activities than attend or participate in, say, sporting activities. (and there are many more that are not included such as , tap dancing, line dancing and so on). These figures show that Purbeck people participate in the Arts and culture to a greater degree than the national average (According to the Arts Council of England 26% of population attended a general art event including carnivals, festivals and circuses in 2003/2004 25% went to the theatre, 26% attended a musical, 8% attended a cultural festival, 4% a dance event) Yet, mysteriously, Purbeck District Council does not have a great tradition for encouraging or supporting these activities within the district. Even the admirable Heritage Committee sees its role in supporting infrastructure rather than the heritage of ideas.
It seems clear that the majority of culture consumers travel out of the area. This means, not only a loss of income, but an inevitable feeling that Purbeck has no culture of its own and its various cultures are not reflected to its inhabitants.
There is a range of small community venues that are able to act as centres of cultural activity (there is a strong tradition of music making and performing in churches, the schools provide facilities for adult classes, the village halls are venues for dances and occasional theatre performances ) These activities are small and ad hoc and there is no mechanism or facility for encouraging artistic or creative activity within those buildings. The Mowlem, originally set up as an institute and reading room, is restricted by its Trust to the provision of a hall and a meeting room. In order to comply with the conditions of its Trust it has no means to support creative and arts initiatives. It does a good job as The Village Hall for Swanage but it cannot achieve more.
There is a strong tradition of amateur arts activity which, while performed with commitment and enthusiasm is not able to take on new challenges or raise its game to new standards. They tend, as membership groups , not to have the resources or structures to include younger members of the community. It might be worthwhile to make a resource available to amateur groups and individuals that would enable them to take on new challenges. At the same time, there is no local professional organisation with a cultural brief that can access and direct funding into the area. This has resulted in the sorry position that Purbeck has been unable to access its share of Lottery and Arts Council monies over the years and is regarded by some as being a cultural lost cause.
So the cultural map is largely made up of culture seekers having to travel out of the district and of practitioners having to stumble on with little support.

The figures above show that Purbeck residents are a reasonably cultural aware community but the result of the small sample research seems to indicate the opposite.
Our interpretation is that the research asked the wrong questions. Of course people don’t expect “leisure, recreation and sport” to contribute to the local economy or to a sense of the local identity of Purbeck.
But These are exactly the two areas in which a cultural strategy should operate and should be addressed with utmost urgency.
It has been enlightening to compare other Districts’ Cultural Strategies. Two downloaded at random from the internet (West Berks and Aylesbury Vale) show quite different approaches. In both cases there is a strong history of support for the arts and culture in the past. Consequently their residents show a great deal more awareness of , not only what can be achieved through cultural activities but have higher demands for more.

While culture can be seen as a leisure activity for the majority of the population of Purbeck, it should not disguise the fact that, as defined by the government guidance, it forms the basis of the district’s economy and provides large numbers of jobs, either in direct delivery of cultural experiences or in the infrastructure of the tourist industry.
Try to imagine a tourist industry with no cultural aspect. Obviously no NationalTrust, Tank Museum, Monkey World or country parks. No appreciation of the countryside or environment. No Jurassic Coast. Only the most basic necessities bought in the shops. Not even a Punch and Judy show on the beach.
In an area where environmental considerations prevent large scale office orindustrial development economic growth is going to come from adding to the touristexperience. This is culture and needs to be at the centre of this strategy.
Two developments are likely to have a significant economic impact in Purbeck in a relatively short time. These are the Jurassic Coast Development and the 2012 Olympics. Large numbers of visitors, many from overseas, will be passing through Purbeck and many will be persuaded to stay and, perhaps, return. We should be looking carefully at ways to encourage these visitors and a cultural strategy should include these.

It is inevitable that culture and tourism will go hand in hand. Most of the tourists coming here will have a cultural aim in mind (even if it is the expectation of seeing old fishermen with grizzled beards and tarry jumpers mending nets and singing sea shanties) The cultural life of a small sea-side town means peace and tranquillity to some, amusements and glitter to others. But it is extraordinary how little of the actual cultural life of the place is on show to the visitors. Farming interpretation centres such as Putlake and Farmer Palmers do a good job but Sunnydown and its Dinosaur Footprint exhibition did not survive. The Ginger Pop Shop and related Enid Blyton walks and books show what can be achieved on the small scale. There are indeed, small museums in Corfe, Langton and Swanage and the prospect of some sort of interpretation centre at Durlston as well as the heritage and tourist centres but there is no feature that can provide the sort of cultural highlight for the main tourist areas in the way that the Tank Museum and Monkey World can do in the North.
The Festivals and carnivals are high points of the year but mostly occur during the summer months and there is a general awareness that there needs to be events happening in the shoulder periods. However, festivals cannot be just dreamt up and then expected to happen. Festival organisers spend vast amounts of time and, often, their own money to make these happen. They do this because they are committed to a particular idea and will sacrifice anything over long periods of time to make it happen. A District Council can never recreate this but it can support. A cultural advisory group, for instance, can sniff out the committed groups and individuals and give them encouragement and show them where to apply for funds. The District Council should not be afraid to put small amounts of seedcorn funding in to kick start some of the new enterprises. Not all will succeed but one success is a success.
In other words in an area so dependent on tourism we must take account of the cultural aspirations of visitors and follow up the good work that has been done in the past on making Swanage an attractive destination with providing good cultural venues and experiences.
Tourist policy at regional and County level emphasises the importance of providing an enriched and extended cultural experience for tourists which goes beyond the traditional "summer holiday" of previous generations. These policiesstress the role of "eco" or cultural tourism and very much revolve around the second definition quoted above. We consider that the strategy needs to relate to thesepolicies and the Jurassic Coast Arts policy and identify the role of PDC indelivering and enabling these within the district. We think that a cultural strategyfor an area with a tourism and environmentally based economy must therefore be a strategy for culturally based economic development in order to generate the wealth to provide for the leisure and sports needs, among others, of the local population.
In short, it’s the environment which brings visitors to Purbeck but it’s cultural activities which enrich the experience and bring in the money over and above the infrastructure of accommodation, car parking and fast food.

One of the objectives of any strategy should be making available cultural experiences to communities that live here. At the same time it should be reflecting the cultural activities that exist here to other communities in Purbeck and outwards to the wider world.
There are few opportunities for cultural interchange. One of the ways in which culture is propagated is through critical mass. This is when individuals and communities are close enough together for a particular idea to take off and become amplified. Such “hot spots” have occurred with painters in St. Ives and Newlyn in Cornwall, for instance. (Interestingly, this is a homegrown Dorset idea with the development of the idea of “Community Plays” by Ann Jellicoe) In Purbeck, one of the cultural problems is the physical separation of rural communities and their fragmentation in towns. PDC could encourage one of these Hot Spots , a centre of excellence for a particular arts activity, whereby local amateurs, young learners and older beginners could come together with professionals to share interests and ideas. An ideal area for this could be in sculpture which has a natural fit and, indeed a proud history in Purbeck. PDC could encourage a tie up with a local quarry, seek out space for a sculpture park and offer micro workshop space. Local hoteliers might be encouraged to wade in with sculpture weekend breaks. There are many other areas where PDC could be proactive in promoting cultural hotspots without the cost of anything more than the time of a culture and arts officer.
Nobody expects PDC to have the resources or expertise to generate cultural programmes itself but there is no reason why it should not use its offices to promote and support this sort of activity. Our suggestion is that PDC encourages the setting up of a cultural steering group along the same lines as the heritage committee with the brief to explore a proper definition of culture as it applies to Purbeck and to advise PDC on possible cultural developments.

In a community designed around the established and the comfortable it is inevitable that freewheeling youngsters are going to be seen as the enemy. The reaction to this has been two fold. Containment on the one hand and diversion on the other - ASBOs and skateparks.
Young people need more out of a community than this. They need challenges and some acknowledgement of their quest for identity.
It is a goal that most communities have failed to achieve, but because others have failed doesn’t mean that we cannot succeed in Swanage. We should look towards localised opportunities to encourage music, dance, drama for young people by young people - not as a diversion but as a genuine attempt to foster self confidence, self awareness and a feeling of self worth.
Having said which, there is no reason to suppose that this approach to Young People will not provide similar or better outcomes to the problems caused by alienation and dislocation from the wider community than a sporting diversion.

Swanage is unusual in its links with other parts of the world. It has a seafaring history . During the war, there was a great concentration of American and other foreign troops in the area and since then there have been cultural ties with large parts of the world through its language schools and other international education establishments. There is an active town twinning partnership which has seen real cultural exchanges.
As far as we know there is no research on the numbers of foreign tourists in Swanage but anecdotal evidence shows that they are increasing significantly. The Jurassic Coast Project and the 2012 Olympics will have a significant impact on these numbers . These new visitors will, generally, be better off than the traditional bucket and spade family and, more importantly, will be culturally aware. Unless we can persuade them otherwise, the trip to Swanage will be a brief stop-off at Durlston and on to Ann Hathaway's Cottage. It is unlikely that bedspace will be increased enough to make Swanage a longer stop but Swanage should be able to picture itself, for once, as centre of a world culture. and be able to persuade visitors to return for longer periods. It behoves us to be able to tell the story of Purbeck in a coherent way and to satisfy this potential for cultural tourism.
For some, we are already part of a world culture with the growing number of Swanage based websites. A cultural group ought to examine the effect of the internet and the world wide cultures to which Swanage people belong. Some acknowledgement ought to be given to those individuals who are making Swanage the hub of many of these interest groups and the support that can be given to them. It is essential that PDC is aware that potential visitors from around the world are learning about Purbeck from these websites and there is real potential for businesses to be based in Swanage with a world-wide clientele

Although there has been an attempt to protect the general townscape there has been no attempt to encourage inspirational development of significant buildings. It was with some shock that residents realised that the only Victorian secular building of any size and historical significance (Seacourt) was about to be developed with no other considerations apart from sitelines and access. The cultural perspective of development needs to be addressed quickly. The importance of the few development sites available needs careful consideration. The cultural significance of the Commercial Road footprint and Pierhead needs direct intervention. It should be a planning requirement that cultural significance should be assessed at the planning stage. There is no reason why the District cannot expect a higher level of architecture and the inclusion of public art in planning developments.

We mentioned earlier that there needs to be a test for cultural value. But there is not a distinction between life and cultural life. They are one and the same thing. Our Culture influences what we do and the world around us influences our cultural life. However whilst developing a cultural strategy there is no point in trying to justify culture in terms of other activities or in hiding other topics under the banner of culture. Culture has its own worth and must be looked at for the benefits it provides in itself.
The provision or signposting of a footpath, for example, is not a cultural development. The naming or describing the story of that footpath is. So that, whilst a footpath was being improved it could provide the opportunity for an artist to contribute to the waymarking. Posts or tablets could demonstrate “this path was originally used by quarrymen walking to work.” This will underline and preserve the cultural significance of the path for future generations. What about extending the idea to a network of cultural trails “The Priest’s Way” “The Spy Way” and so on.
Culture should be seen as an enrichment of the world as it is given to us.

PDC can use its cultural strategy to provide a direction for the practical realisation of its vision for the District : "Thriving communities in balance with the naturalenvironment."
The body of the PDC document makes quite clear that cultural activities are vital for the well-being of Purbeck. The conclusions are, unfortunately, skewed by its emphasis on Sports activities. While there are clear cultural links, they should, rather be removed to a separate “Sports, Health and Fitness” document. It appears that the Cultural Strategy is being used to hide other, non-related, activities. This leaves an extraordinary thin strategy for culture. However we can now flesh this out with some concrete suggestions:


Remove the aims “Sport, health and Fitness” from the thinking of the strategy and include in its own document
Set up Cultural advisory group to develop a proper definition of culture for Purbeck
Eventually employ a culture and arts officer.
This group can advise on:
Identification of some of the cultural strands of the District
Development of economic understanding of the need for culture particularly in tourism
Youth culture needs
The implications of Jurassic Coast Project and 2012 Olympics
Interaction with world cultures
This can lead to:
Sponsorship of a fund for arts innovations and projects
Including, for instance:
Facilities for music making (recording studio, practice rooms.)
Development of music teaching and mentoring network in the area.
Rehearsal and studio facilities for local performers
Promotion budget to encourage non-profit making performances
Encourage local organisations to take youth activities more seriously
Art gallery space
Development of other cultural festivals (literature, art, dance) with particular Purbeck themes.
At the same time PDC can:
Encourage one of the Dorset or regional arts organisations to relocate to Purbeck
Encourage the development of a cultural critical mass
Encourage a Sculpture hot spot including sculpture park, micro workshops for craftspeople
Include Interpretive waymarking for footpath network
Look for cultural significance in planning applications
Include Public art in new building developments
Develop a Sponsorship schemes to attract practitioners into the area.
It also needs to remember that:
Cultural activities do not need to be justified by unrelated labels and should not be used to hide non cultural activities however worthy.