Thriving creative communities help revitalise high streets

January 21, 2024

“I haven’t seen a single show at this year’s fringe because I’m too skint, and that I feel sums up the arts: artists unable to see the art.”

Berwick artist Chloe Smith wrote that in August last year. It’s something I’m determined to change.

I met Chloe this week. She was full of enthusiasm for the new culture and creative zone in the town that we’ve put £1.5 million into. ‘Create Berwick’ is all about investing in artists to build a year-round economy that provides jobs and opportunities for local people and attracts visitors from all over the world.

It’s about a new vision for Berwick as a thriving cultural and creative centre for the 13,000 people who call it home. It’s a plan that’s already working.

Politicians often express concern about the future of high streets and town centres. The pandemic accelerated trends that were already underway – the move towards online shopping being the most obvious. The streaming revolution means we no longer need to go to an HMV or Virgin Megastore to buy CDs, videos, or DVDs. We can buy what we want to watch or listen to from the comfort of our own living rooms.

Usually the plan seems to be about returning to an imagined idyllic past where people emptied their wallets in town and left with bags full of consumer goods. Often the proposal solution amounts to putting in a few benches and a nicer pavement.

But a one-size fits all approach rarely works. Nor does wishful thinking.

There’s always been change. Town and city centres used to be manufacturing hubs. In the early 19th century Berwick’s commercial, trading and industrial base grew from small businesses becoming major manufacturers such as malting, milling, brewing, tanning, iron manufacturing, textiles, tiling and rope making.

The high street as a concept didn’t come about until the 1870s. But back then it was dominated by thousands of different market stalls and shops. These days most people buy their groceries from a supermarket. Or get them delivered to their home. Trying to change that is like trying to turn back time.

Far better to look at what a place’s advantages are and work to boost them further. Berwick has a good recent track record with arts and culture. And that includes everything from guided relaxation sessions to watching a film about the speedway at Shielfield Park.

The Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, which we gave £170,000 to this year to make it even bigger and better, has been going since 2005. The Maltings, built on the site where the ingredients for beer and whisky used to be made , has been open since 1990. And has sold a million tickets for theatre, dance, music, comedy, films and other activities since then.

Ask artists what they need and they’ll usually answer, “space”. Anyone walking round Berwick town centre will see that there are a number of empty shops there. What might no longer work for retail could be repurposed as studios. A number of shop keepers already do both – creative people with an income separate to their main business.

Artists also need money. To become a world class musician, you don’t simply find a job advert on gumtree for a first violinist, borrow your mate’s Stradivarius and rock up to the interview. It takes talent and incredible levels of commitment. And a lot of practice. So part of our plan involves small grants for individuals, freelancers, artists, practitioners, creatives, cultural organisations, collectives and community groups who are delivering, or want to deliver, new work in the Create Berwick zone.

This works for Berwick, but every town and city is different.

We’re funding similar initiatives in North Shields and Newcastle city centre. No matter where you are in the North of Tyne if you’re an independent artist, creative professional or small business you’ll have access to resources to help you grow. We want year-round jobs in culture and tourism – organising festivals and staging events that don’t depend on summer weather.

With the new £6.1 billion devolution deal I negotiated from Government, I will be able to help towns across the North East get the investment that works for them.

We also get control of our transport system. With better rural buses, more trains, and integrated ticketing, more people can come to events. And because I’ll make travel free for under-18s, taking your kids for a day out will be more affordable.

With a thriving creative community you get more secondary jobs too – everything from cafes and restaurants to joiners and accountants. Because when artists earn more money, like everyone else they’ll want to spend it.

No longer unable to see the art, artists like Chloe will go beyond the fringe.