Growing Culture : Reflecting on our Cultural Strategy for Herefordshire

A rural town sounds like an oxymoron. But such places exist. And such places combine the challenges that both urban and countryside environments face.

Hereford and Herefordshire are a case in point. You might be forgiven for seeing the area as a comfortable place – this is Archers country: Hereford is a picturesque cathedral town sitting between two AONBs (the Wye Valley and the Malvern Hills are both designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Yet poverty exists here as much as it does in any inner city. Herefordshire has the lowest average wage of any UK county. The county council faces the same kind of financial pressures other local authorities have to cope with. And the national public service reform agenda demands new approaches to service delivery. While this might sound terribly familiar to city folk with even a glancing knowledge or public services, Herefordshire also faces typical ‘country’ problems, such as dispersed populations and patchy transport infrastructure.

It was against this backdrop that, in 2016, the Herefordshire Cultural Partnership was formed. It’s a group that draws on the county’s arts, culture and heritage organisations, its businesses and its local government to bring some leadership to the area’s culture activity, and to give it a specific goal: to enhance the wellbeing of those living and visiting the county, thus addressing many of the issues the local population faces.

A voluntary group, HCP got to work pretty quickly, applying in 2017 to the City of Culture 2021, and in the same year winning money from the Great Place Scheme (ACE and Heritage Lottery Fund), and a grant from Arts Council England to commission a consultancy to help develop a Cultural Strategy.

This is where Associates came in, and while we saw the creation of HCP as offering vital cultural leadership in the county – something that had long be lacking – we quickly identified some key areas that needed work if Hereford’s City of Culture application was to be successful, and if HCP’s efforts around this and the Great Place work were to last beyond bids and one-off events. The county’s market towns, its young people and the creative industries already working in the area needed to be part of the decision-making around HCP’s united culture efforts. These groups needed to be brought together for cultural collaborations, and encouraged away from the silo-style working they were used to. The dispersed rural population needed to be given the opportunity to access culture locally and across the county. And probably key, any cultural activity needed to harness the opposing dynamics of, on the one hand, an ageing and shrinking established population, and, on the other, the influx of young people, brought by a new university and its associated businesses.

The report Associates finally produced, based on both desk research and interviews with a large number of individuals and organisations across Herefordshire, promotes a clear idea: growing culture by using what the county already has. This means encouraging and enabling Herefordshire’s people, businesses, and those running its buildings, land and events, to work together to create something greater than their individual efforts add up to. It’s a kind of cultural gestalt – and a lesson those developing culture in cities might well learn from.