The Great Place (GP) programme was a pilot venture between the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), Arts Council England (ACE) and Historic England (HE) launched in fulfilment of a commitment of the government’s (2016) Culture White Paper. Based around the catchment of two rivers – the Tees and the Wear – and extending from their sources in the North Pennines to the lowland arc through which they flow, the £2m Northern Heartlands (NH) Great Place scheme includes six market towns, a number of former mining communities of the Durham coalfield and numerous isolated hill farms and villages of the rural upper Dales. NH is distinctive in that it recognises that the places where people live and work are cultural landscapes, constantly changing and embodying contested heritage and values. It has sought to investigate and manifest the role of arts and artists, working with local communities, through its declared mission:
“To deliver cultural activities that transform people’s understanding of the heritage, landscapes and places they live in, building their confidence and ability to influence policy and decision-making.”
This commissioned report fulfils the requirement of NLHF and ACE for an evaluation of the NH scheme. It concludes that the central feature of NH’s success has been the ability of the delivery team and partners to establish close links with and secure the trust of local communities, using a wide and inclusive definition of ‘culture’ to move beyond the distinctions between ‘arts’ and ‘heritage’ and to function not as ‘missionaries’ but rather as ‘mediators’ and ‘mobilisers’. In the three short years of delivery and despite the lack of a development phase, NH has proved itself as a unique and ambitious initiative. The commitment and expertise of the NH team and delivery partners and the enthusiasm of local residents have meant that NH has been able to achieve a great deal
In the process NH has challenged common approaches to the arts as comprised of cultural activities delivered ‘from above’ (a focus of some other GP schemes, sometimes extended to local, vernacular ‘cultures’) by emphasising the centrality of place to people’s lives. At the same time it has also challenged conventional ‘views’ of landscape and place – often restricted to the scenic and eminent — by focusing on the commonplace, from ‘remote rural’ to deindustrialised, not just in theory, but in a practical way, together with local communities acknowledging that values and policies are often contested, representing conflicting social and economic interests.
NH has also highlighted some of challenges of ‘placemaking’ and the contradictions in National Lottery funding – in the heritage, arts and cultural fields, as in other areas. NH will leave behind a varied legacy of cultural engagement amongst local communities. There is evidence that a number of these at least will continue beyond the end of the NH Great Place Scheme. It has also resulted in a deeper understanding of the challenges and strategies for delivering cultural activities ‘from below’, enriching our understanding of the theoretical and policy dimensions of community engagement with arts and culture in relation to heritage, landscape and place.
Credit is due to those involved in the period prior to the award of the GP application who put together such an innovative and pioneering scheme and to the NH core team, partners, local communities and artists involved in delivering it. Their significant achievements have demonstrably ‘made a difference’ in the area, and in particular to participants and communities involved, and have pointed the way for related activities in the future.