Culture in a Rural Place

by Lois Stonock, February 2017

Associates spent last week in Herefordshire working on a Cultural Strategy, getting to know organisations, institutions and individuals working in the county. Last week was all about getting under the skin of the place, what makes it tick, what residents value and what culture means for the West Midlands County.

Herefordshire is the 4th most sparsely populated county in the UK. A population of 180,000 people distributed over 2,160 km/sq. with no major motorway road network, meaning that people are reliant on B roads and the odd A road. However, those who have moved into the county have moved there for a reason, they want the peace of the countryside and the undeniable beauty of rural living. Oddly for a county which is famous for its orchards, and home to Bulmers, the biggest cider maker in the world, a map of the area looks remarkably like a halved apple. At the core of the county sits the city of Hereford (pop 55,000) which is surrounded by the market towns of Ledbury, Kington, Bromyard, Ross-on-Wye and Leominster.

Arts and Culture in the county have seen the cuts from the county council come quicker and harder than anywhere else in the country. Here are some figures: 2016 alone saw a £5.2m cut to culture budgets down 54.9% (£1.5m on open spaces -18.7%; £1.5m on libraries-47.9%), which was worse than Newcastle in terms of percentage. Following this, the cabinet voted to end its £60,000 arts commissioning grant scheme — a scheme which cost taxpayers as little as 30p per person to secure some £600,000 in external funding for arts groups.

Associates have long been predicting the dire consequences of cuts to funding for the arts and culture but in Herefordshire you can actually see how the pips have been squeezed and have affected the sector:

1. Volunteers are running the sector in many places.

With no reliable funding coming from the county council since 2016, a limited pot from the Arts Council and only a couple of active local funding bodies mean organisations have needed to find new ways of operating and to find people who are willing to put in the time to help. We met directors on a 2 –day pw salary, working full-time and many others working relentlessly without any pay.

2. The sector continues to thrive.

Herefordshire is a county full of self-starters and do-ers. We met the Rule of Tum team, a group of young people who put in their own cash to organise a food festival in an out-of-town car park that attracted 15,000 people. A mum, and former executive management consultant at Deloitte, who has developed a fundraising and lobbying group to support the long suffering Museum in Hereford City as well as sitting on the board of Herefordshire Art College and various other advisory boards between ferrying her 3 children around the county to school and after school activities. Arts Alive, a small 2 person operation, organising the popular Flicks in the Sticks film programme, delivers over 1000 screenings a year in rural villages, via one member of staff working 7 days a week for 2 days pay. There were many more stories like this where individuals were carrying on through collaboration with local services, partnerships with surrounding (and therefore not suffering the same cuts) county councils of Shropshire, Worcester and Gloucester. All propped up by support from ACE and a local trust, the Elmley Foundation.

3. Creative Industries are thriving.

Food and drink is a major business whether that is Hereford Beef, craft ciders and beers, food markets or pop-up restaurants. This is where the young people are working, many coming back from London and other major cities to work with the quality produce. The Beefy Boys run by a young entrepreneur Anthony Murphy recently opened a new restaurant in the town centre, its USP being everything is sourced from the county, is booked out every night and is a tasty success story. There are concerns around increasing business rates in the town centre, particularly for the feasibility of young creative businesses being able to afford to stay in these city centres. A model for the future may be more aligned with the current craze for pop-ups and out of town markets, anything to avoid the rates. This is one area we will need to watch as the effects unfold on the high streets.

One of the most uplifting stories is around the City of Culture bid, which has been initiated by the sector itself. It is being put together by a group of individuals from organisations including Rural Media, Courtyard Arts Centre, Three Choirs Festival and the Hereford College of Art alongside others across the county in their spare time. Unlike the bids coming from places like Sunderland and Paisley, which are evidently heavily invested in by their Local Authority, the sector in Herefordshire is not allowing a lack of initiative from the Local Authority or funding challenges stop their ambition for the place and its people.

4. Loss of impartial independent connector:

Perhaps the most damaging effect of the withdrawal of local authority support is lack of an impartial organising body to coordinate across the sector. A lack of strategic awareness of e.g. what others are doing, similar organisations who are working 2 miles from each other applying for the same funding, lack of a central communication mechanism and too many self-initiated networks makes it impossible for any of the smaller, rural organisations working outside of Hereford to feel connected with the sector across the County. To drive to Hereford from the market town of Kington, 20 miles away is a 40 minute car journey and we heard from many organisations that regularly do similar trips into to Hereford city just to stay connected. Meadow Arts told us they could fill their diaries 5 days a week just keeping up with the various networks.

The role most missed is the one of the impartial independent connector who coordinated, communicated and introduced across the active participants in the County cultural landscape. A role to collate a mailing list, and a role to be held accountable by everyone.

When it became clear that Herefordshire Council no longer saw itself in a leadership or coordinating role for the County’s cultural sector, Herefordshire Cultural Partnership (HCP) was formed, initially to shape a bid for UK City of Culture 2021 but soon after to take a more strategic role in supporting and developing the County’s cultural sector. HCP’s founding Board comprises the major arts and heritage organisations, Chamber of Commerce, Hereford BID, and Herefordshire Council (see HCP Constitution for membership details). HCP quickly identified the need for a county-wide cultural strategy and applied to Arts Council for support to recruit consultants to help them in this endeavour — Create Associates won this tender. In addition to drafting the City of Culture bid, HCP has submitted a £900,000 application to ACE / HLF / Historic England’s Great Place Scheme. All this in less than 9 months is impressive, and demonstrates the value of cross sector collaboration, despite inevitable challenges of any organisation comprising delivery partners also setting out to both develop strategy / policy. However with careful management, trust and transparency there is no reason why a modus operandi cannot be developed to redress conflicts of interest as they arise.

5. A failed attempt to outsource ‘tourism’’ to a service provider has had great repercussions.

The Ledbury Poetry Festival happens annually in July. For the town it is the single-most economically successful week, with the takings from the 2 book shops in Ledbury supporting its operations for the entire year and the newsagents have told the organisers they sell more papers in that week than any other time of the year. A food market and craft market have developed around the festival bringing in more money, opportunities and tourists to the town than ever before. 10,000 people flock to the town over the 10 days in the summer.

In 2016 planned West Midland Rail engineering works took place over the 2 weekends of the Festival. It was a potentially devastating closure for the festival and something that would have been flagged and navigated by the Local Authority in previous times. The festival had to arrange additional buses and car journeys, to work around it, increasing the financial and environmental cost. After 12 weeks of negotiations a plan to put up a banner at the train station to welcome and direct tourists around the town was abandoned. The festival organising body simply didn’t have the time or skills to navigate the red tape involved. It is not the money the organisations are missing, it is the advocacy, the networks, the conversations and support within the local authority to support a good thing and to help make it even better and work for the community.

The resilience, self-organisation and determination of the sector are a testament to the people of the county. A problem solving attitude is not new to this place. The cider crash of 2008 hit farmers incredibly hard but they took the opportunity to look at new business models and a thriving craft cider industry was born, giving farmers across the county a chance to strive for their own version of excellence in cider, rather than shutting up shop when Bulmers couldn’t take their apples. Tyrrell’s crisps also come from Herefordshire, and were also developed out of crisis; this time by a farmer who moved into growing potatoes after foot and mouth disease saw his entire cattle herd slaughtered.

Last week was only the beginning phase of our work with this county and we look forward to finding out more.