Liverpool has made much of its community engagement programme during the city’s European Capital of Culture year, in 2008. But when does engagement become genuine social inclusion? And does inclusion require empowerment as well as contact? Or is the underlying emphasis on increasing tourism to bolster the local economy enough? This is where opinion in the city divides.
Liverpool, European Capital Of Culture 2008 and The Future Of Liverpool
Great claims have been made for community inclusion during Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture year; indeed, it’s sometimes been hard to identify the ‘European’ element at all, in all the local leadership talk of community embedding and power to the people.
Not all of this is bluff. The Liverpool Culture Company has fielded a team of arts educators and animateurs who have worked hard to produce some imaginative and significant projects, and for that we must congratulate them. Likewise, another team has taken forward work on arts and health, for which substantial success is claimed.
Engagement, inclusion or empowerment?
But when does a degree of engagement become genuine social inclusion? Does inclusion require social empowerment as well as contact? This is where opinion diverges.
For our city leaders, the brightly coloured photographs of smiling children and milling crowds are enough. How much more evidence of ‘inclusion’ do you want?
Bottom up, or top down?
But for some of us, the evidence that real inclusion has been achieved remains patchy. No-one wants to decry some good work which Culture Company teams have delivered; but why wait for 2008 to develop a meaningful culture and health programme, in a city right at the bottom of the well-being league? And is ‘top down’ delivery, determined at high command, as inclusive as the more difficult ‘bottom up’ sort?
It is not Liverpool’s own community arts which received the biggest budgets in 2008. Vast ephemeral ‘events’ have scooped up massive sums, whilst many indigenous local artists outside the Culture Company have had to scramble between themselves, often to ridiculous and shifting deadlines, for a few thousand or even less here and there.
Tourism as the main rationale
Of course the Culture Company have their problems; but arts practitioners who were there before and must carry on afterwards arguably face greater challenges. Their work to be inclusive is geared to much more than large public ‘events’ which have – let us be honest – an increase in tourism as their main rationale.
It’s this which worries me. I’d like the city to treat me as a grown up. If they want to pursue hotel bed counts all out, could they please say so? Could they perhaps say, we know the public events we’re offering are not truly inclusive – you can come and have a bit of fun if you want, and that’s about it – but we need to do it this way, to improve Liverpool’s economic base for everyone’s future wellbeing….?
A focus on the bottom line
Spelling things out like this would emphasise how hard we must all work, to improve the local economy – more skills, no poor service, no attitude.
It would help community arts practitioners understand why their locally focused efforts currently feel less valued than the big event spectaculars.
Treating citizens as grown-ups
And it would say to local citizens, thanks for turning up, we hope you’ve enjoyed the big splashes, and, when all the tourist destination marketing has worked, we will indeed be able to support more genuinely embedded opportunities on your own terms for exciting, local, bottom-up creative and cultural activity.
Now, those messages really would demonstrate that the relationship between Liverpool’s decision-makers and its citizens has become adult and consciously inclusive.
A version of this article first appeared in New Start magazine, January 2009.
Read more articles about Liverpool, European Capital Of Culture 2008 and The Future Of Liverpool, and see more of Hilary’s Publications, Lectures And Talks.