Can better arts funding help revive Britain’s seaside towns?

The Turner, Margate. Image: Getty.

“Britain’s seaside towns are in urgent need of reinvention,” read the headlines last week, as a new report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns urged greater action to help regenerate Britain’s neglected coastal areas. The report makes several wise recommendations, from improving transport links and broadband connectivity to promotion of better educational opportunities for young people – a recommendation of British Future’s National Conversation on Immigration

But there is more to regeneration in Britain’s towns, coastal or otherwise, than jobs and the economy. Another report this week, British Future’s Crossing Divides: How arts and heritage can bring us together, finds that, across every section of Britain’s society, people agree that we are more divided than any of us would like. It argues that the arts and heritage sectors could play an important role in healing these divisions.

Arts projects have helped bring new visitors, businesses and money to some coastal towns. The Turner Contemporary in Margate, for example, has generated an estimated £68m the local economy. New creative businesses have thrived, earning the town the nickname “Shoreditch-on-sea”.

That is not an entirely complementary moniker, however – gentrification can also heighten divisions within communities. Twenty-five miles down the coast from Margate, people we spoke to in Folkestone expressed pride that their town, which now hosts its own arts Triennial, was renowned for the arts. But many in the group felt that this new cultural offer was not for ‘local’ people. As one said, “… it doesn’t speak to me, isn’t for me, this is for the posh DFLs [Down From London] that come here and the tourists that it attracts.”

In Folkestone, one in five people took part in Pages of the SeaDanny Boyle’s sand sculptures on beaches across the UK. People felt that it referenced the town’s local connection to the First World War and praised the project for “not looking down on anyone and… getting the local community involved”. The project was part of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, which commissioned over 100 arts projects, in more than 220 locations across the UK. Millions across the UK attended 14-18 NOW events, two-thirds of which were free to the public.

We looked in detail at the legacy and lessons of 14-18 NOW. Held over a period that saw the Scottish referendum and the Brexit vote, what was distinctive about 14-18 NOW was the high levels of public support and participation, across social and political divides. Our research showed that half (56 per cent) of the population was aware of the arts programme and 14 per cent of people could recall personally experiencing or attending 14-18 NOW events. Moreover, the programme reached social groups who are less likely to take part in the arts.

Most people agreed that its tone and content of the 14-18 NOW programme were right. In such divided times, we believe that, in a small way, these activities helped bring people together. Our research explored what made 14-18 NOW a success. Can this kind of reach and engagement only be achieved on major national anniversaries? And what broader lessons does the centenary programme offer to those involved in the arts?


14-18 NOW’s events told a story about a shared history, but in way that drew on local and personal connections. Some projects used volunteers, promoting social contact; others were participative, provoking communication between strangers, Community outreach and the decision to hold many free events in public space meant that those who attended represented a cross-section of the local community.

Crucially, more than 80 per cent of the events were held outside London. Brexit has highlighted geographic as well as social polarisation: major cities voted to Remain, while England’s towns and smaller cities largely voted Leave. The term “metropolitan elite” has become common parlance. If the arts and heritage sectors are to play a role in healing this country’s divisions, we need to think much more about geography.

At present, arts funding is disproportionately allocated to organisations based in London. This should be addressed through a “fair funding review”, including funding for the arts in schools and local music services. The review should strike a balance between maintaining national institutions, many of which are based in London, and channelling a higher proportion of funding to northern England and to towns.  

Hundreds of thousands of people saw Tom Piper and Paul Cummins’ poppies installation when it went on tour across the UK. Exhibitions of iconic pieces of art boost local economies and bring in new people – but the default position is for iconic loans to be exhibited in London. We believe this approach should be reviewed and our national galleries should loan much of their iconic art to galleries and museums across the breadth of the UK.  

And as has been argued by Yvette Cooper and Lisa Nandy, we should institute a Town of Culture competition to sit alongside the existing City of Culture events. While towns are not currently prevented from applying only one, Paisley, has ever made the City of Culture shortlist. Our research found that two-thirds of people agreed that was a good idea. If the programme was targeted at local residents, a Town of Culture might also address inequalities in participation in the arts in the UK.  

The next months present huge political challenges and Brexit impacts on us all as citizens. We expect artists to reflect the state of the nation in ways that engender perspective-taking and empathy for the other side. But to do this will require thought by artists themselves, humility and consideration from the London-based arts world, and commitment to addressing the geographic inequalities that divide the UK. 

Jill Rutter is director of strategy and relationships at British Future and is a co-author of “Crossing Divides: How arts and heritage can help bring us together”.

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