Think of “the north” and images that come to mind include Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, the sculpture of Henry Moore and Manchester’s music scene.
But now a rare show of cross-party unity has called for all of the cultural icons of northern England to be a catalyst to rebuild the region and rebalance it with the rest of the UK.
Ministers will join Labour council leaders and mayors to launch the first report of its kind on Wednesday, which sets out in detail how culture could and should be a central part of the region’s post-pandemic recovery.
Recommendations in a ten-point action plan include devolving funding decisions to a regional level from London; encouraging more strategic partnerships and less competition between different areas; and greater investment in next-generation creative talents.
It calls for culture to be “embedded” in the government’s levelling-up white paper, expected in the next week.
Prof Katy Shaw, lead writer of the Case for Culture report, said she thought many people were fed up with “hearing about the value of the north only in terms of things like technology or business.
“For the first time what this report is doing is evidencing, not just asserting, why and how culture is possibly the quickest and also the most underused lever for levelling up,” she said.
“We’re sick, really, of hearing how much change is needed in the north to rebalance and rebuild and how we are always at the bottom of the snakes and ladders board.
“The north is really well positioned coming out of the pandemic to think about how we can work on what we are good at – and that includes culture. We can use culture as a catalyst to boost our region and to boost our position in the UK to have genuine levelling up.”
Dan Jarvis, the Labour mayor of South Yorkshire, will be at the launch. He said levelling up had to be more than an economic mission.
“It’s got to be about improving how people feel about the places where they live,” he said. “Culture does this … it adds colours to people’s lives and makes a place somewhere that we want to live, study, work and invest in. No one deserves to live in black and white. There is a real opportunity now to level up the north and culture must be central to that.”
Other expected speakers include the arts minister, the Conservative peer Stephen Parkinson; the levelling up minister, Neil O’Brien; and the shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell.
A key theme of the report is encouraging more collaboration. Tracy Brabin, the mayor of West Yorkshire, said funding cannot carry on being a “beauty contest where we’re all pitching against each other.
“The money and time spent in these bids is unfortunately so draining and then when you don’t win there’s nothing.”
Organisations who gave evidence for the report argue that funding decisions made in London are not always fair. They are not, said one, “based on a current understanding of our cultural map, challenges or opportunities.”
The report has been prepared for the northern culture all-party parliamentary group jointly chaired by James Daly, Conservative MP for Bury North, and Julie Elliott, Labour MP for Sunderland Central.
In a joint statement they said this was the first time the “north has come together as one, to champion the north’s rich cultural tapestry.”
They added: “We know that northern culture makes a huge contribution to the UK economy but now is the time for the north to seize this ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to increase diversity, sustainability, accessibility and resilience in its talent pipeline.”
Shaw, director of cultural partnerships at Northumbria University, said culture had not played a big enough role in the wider levelling-up debate but that was changing.
She said she had been going to “northern powerhouse” conferences for five years “and this was the first year there’s ever been a panel on culture.
“It’s because, coming out of the pandemic, people can see this huge opportunity with culture that delivers on everything from wellbeing to education to decarbonisation. Like all of these things the government will say: ‘Where’s the evidence’? That’s really what our report has been able to do for the first time.”