As Liverpool launches its vision for city centre growth and investment over the next fifteen years, Bido Lito! Editor-in-Chief Craig G Pennington makes the case for our city’s grassroots creative organisations having a seat at the table…

In November 2012, Liverpool Vision launched its new Strategic Investment Framework (SIF), a document that outlines a fifteen-year vision for the city centre. The plan has been deliberately designed to ‘promote strategically identified economic priorities’ and follows on from the City Centre Strategic Regeneration Framework (SRF), launched in 2001, which resulted in the 2008 Capital of Culture and the Liverpool ONE development.

Encouragingly, the plan outlines support for the growth of the creative industries in the city, a prioritising of the culture and visitor economy and also ongoing support for the development of Liverpool’s ‘individual sense of place’ (an idea brought into focus as cities become evermore competitive for investment, profile and visitor numbers while often, and somewhat ironically, become evermore homogenised).

On the face of it, this seems like good news for grassroots culture in the city. After all many would support the idea that the city’s ever developing and morphing home-grown grassroots creative culture, and its people, play a hugely important role in its unique sense of place.

The SIF aims to promote Liverpool as a capital of major cultural events and will look to support ongoing programmes that serve to enhance a positive image of the city, attract visitors and share economic benefit. (Encouragingly Liverpool Biennial, Liverpool Sound City and The Arabic Arts Festival are all cited as successful examples of such events.) But does this support spread to our city’s grassroots cultural organisations?

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In their December 2011 issue, the internationally regarded Creative Review ran an extended feature celebrating Liverpool’s thriving independent creative scene and making the assertion that “a stone’s throw from the multibillion pound developments of Liverpool ONE and the Albert Dock a vibrant independent creative scene is thriving in Liverpool”. The whistle-stop-tour article included artist Framedink, photographer Adam Murray-Brown, Lost Art Skateshop, illustrator Kev Grey, Bold Street Coffee, The Well, Gary ‘Horse’ McGarvey aka Screenadelica, The Kazimier and clothing line CadeandTodd.

The piece remarked on a stark sense of people “committed to doing it for themselves or not at all, partly out of recognition that independence is always better and partly from seeing other projects wither when funding was withdrawn”. It also identified the availability of cheap, affordable space, particularly around the Ropewalks, as a key factor for supporting the burgeoning creative community and hoped that “creative types up and down the country will be able to take advantage of this situation in the coming years”.

The article was based largely on the collective community around Wolstenholme Creative Space, celebrating its role in providing affordable studio space for a vibrant mix of artists. Yet here is a cruel, uncomfortable irony: the SIF plan was published almost a year to the day after the Creative Review article ran and, barely as the ink had dried, Wolstenholme Creative Space was boarded up.

There are various reasons for Wolstenholme Creative Space’s end (it would be simplistic to try and park blame at a specific individual’s or organisation’s door) but it’s closure, despite a widely-held regard of its importance to the local creative scene, endorsed on an international level by Creative Review, is to be lamented. The case also demonstrates a worrying trend. The availability of cheap rental space is a key factor for the flourishing of grassroots creative communities (a point identified in the Creative Review article and noted above) in cities across the world – Berlin has enjoyed the benefits of this for decades – yet the SIF notes that “Ropewalks still has gaps to fill with derelict buildings and development sites throughout the area. It needs to attract more investment and development activity to accommodate more creative and digital businesses, apartments and cultural attractions”. It is vitally important that the creative and cultural organisations currently calling these ‘development sites’ home have a stake and a say in their future.

As well as bringing into focus the challenges on an organic level, the aforementioned Creative Review article also profiled the now-demised Contemporary Urban Centre, demonstrating the pressures at both a grassroots and high budget, flagship project level. This emphasises the need for a balance to be struck between protecting our grassroots scene with support and encouraging engagement and – where needed – investment and infrastructure.

"Our grassroots creative sector needs a seat at the table." Craig G Pennington, Editor-in-Chief, Bido Lito!

Another related point brought into focus within the SIF is the desire to increase the city centre population to over 42,000, “the largest of any UK city in the core of the city centre”. After the banning of live music at Static Gallery in 2012 due to noise issues, a case that brought into focus the ongoing friction between the city centre as a place for both sleep and play, such a population rise will bring with it further challenges.

So, does the SIF have the ongoing support of Liverpool’s grassroots culture at its heart? The issues outlined above highlight some initial challenges and, after twelve months of ongoing council rates’ disputes, noise abatement orders, funding cuts and economic pressures, is the SIF a plan that can help facilitate the flourishing of our grassroots cultural sector?

Because, on the face of it, it should be. If the motivations really are for the growth of the creative industries in the city, a prioritising of the culture and visitor economy and support for the development of Liverpool’s individual sense of place, then we should be moving into a new period of support for Liverpool’s grassroots creatives.

By its very nature, the grassroots creative culture of our city is particularly disparate, with lots of small collectives and individuals. The artists, independent retailers, photographers, designers, publishers, promoters, performance spaces, theatre groups, dance troupes, musicians, galleries, recording and rehearsal studios, tech start-ups, production companies, festivals, independent cafes and bars, printers, and the myriad of creative thinkers, doers and makers are what make our city truly marvellous, that make this place what it is.

This is a sector of vital economic and cultural worth. If it is to be understood, valued and supported, it needs strong representation within the city level decision-making process, and a real understanding of its intrinsic worth to the city. It needs collective representation equal to the individual representation of Liverpool’s large arts organisations, a position into which (with support) today’s grassroots organisations can blossom in the years to come.

And seeking representation is not through some desire to provide obstacles and halt development. As much as anybody else, we want to see Liverpool continue to progress and flourish beyond the current challenges. We want to understand our role in, and be part of, a plan for the future that has every individual and community within our city at its heart. In order to achieve this, our grassroots creative sector needs a seat at the table.

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