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Leeds Civic Trust – What does culture mean to you?

Leeds Civic Trust brings together a range of groups and individuals interested in preserving the heritage of the city whilst supporting its journey into the future. The group I met at the Civic Trust quarterly meeting included The Leeds Library, The Victorian Society, In Bloom groups, individuals who are part of neighbourhood planning teams and the people responsible for throwing open the doors of the city’s historic and often hidden gems as part of the national Heritage Open Days campaign – in which Leeds is now the third largest contributor.

I outlined the story of the Culture Strategy so far and what it hopes to achieve: lots of conversations working towards a co-produced strategy that will broaden our definition of culture, demonstrate the value of culture across policy areas, empower a new wave of culture makers of all ages and backgrounds, and seek to embed culture across all policy decisions in the city.

When it came to the question of definitions there were mixed feelings in the room. Some felt that the definition should be given, it’s too difficult to understand and see how and if you fit in without this as a guide. Others felt that this was the point – everyone fits in so having a narrow definition would be too exclusive. The meeting split into small groups and explored definitions further.

As you might expect many of the definitions focused on heritage, community, built environment and belonging. Culture is a shared history that bonds communities and gives them a distinct identity. Other definitions were more personal: A Londoner; Working Class; The way I live my life. One of my favourite definitions was “Culture is whatever you say it is” meaning that culture is deeply personal and individual. I later lived to regret tweeting that response as I was bombarded with pictures of broken benches, anti-social behaviour and fly tipping and asked that if we were to say that this is culture, would that mean it is?

One suggestion was for a cultural map of the city as the cultures that define one area of the city would not be the same as the cultures defining another, which leads us helpfully on to a discussion about cultural policy. If cultures are different in different areas of the city, then logically a ‘one size fits all’ approach to policy making might not be the right choice.

Roundhay Park. Image: Leanne Buchan
Roundhay Park. Image: Leanne Buchan

We talked about the challenges in the city and how policy changes could improve Leeds for everyone. Issues around planning ranged from change of use for empty buildings and listed building consent to the thorny issues surrounding the balance of preserving heritage with opening up forgotten yet important buildings. I was surprised that a group so focused on heritage would be the ones taking the pragmatic approach that if changes were needed to make a building compliant in favour of being true to its original plans then that is far better than it not being in use at all.

In truth much of the conversation surprised me. I was expecting a group very focused on the past and preservation, and while those things are core to the groups shared values, they are much more concerned with the present and the future. The conversation took in the need for a much improved rapid transport system, better public realm, more for young people to do, more care for the environment and green spaces. Overall the group were positive about Leeds, a city many told me they were not from and had only intended to stay two years yet here they are twenty or more years later.

They talked about the Victorian Leeds and what a legacy had been left. Where other industrial cities had built on every available space leaving fresh air to the rural communities, Leeds had invested in great parks on the door step of the factories and mills. Building such as Temple Newsam, Harewood House, Kirkgate Market and Leeds Town Hall, which are still the iconic cultural venues of the city today.They felt that the city’s international and European links stretched back centuries and could be found in our culture today.

The new Culture Strategy will take us to 2030 and hopefully beyond. When asked to look to the future the group had relatively simple requests but ones that had gone unanswered for a long time: create a cultural map of the city; celebrate religious diversity in Leeds; ban litter; more investment in culture and heritage; a strong cultural identity or brand for the city.

However the most requested item was for the city to take pride in itself and what it already has, amidst the constant refrain I’ve heard throughout this process, that “the city doesn’t tell its story.”


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