People power and heritage in “English Chicago”

My secondment to the Heritage Lottery Fund is taking the form of me leading an inquiry, as part of HLF’s Strategic Team, to explore how they might change their funding approach to support communities to catalyse new heritage activity. Right up my street, of real interest to HLF and suitably strategic forward-facing stuff. So, through a range of encounters (including interviews and “walking conversations”) I’m drawing upon multiple perspectives from a wide range of people, including existing grantees, community change-makers and leaders, practitioners, researchers and funders.   This will not be an exhaustive study and I’m no consultant. Instead, drawing upon my experience, a range of networks and practice, I’ll seek to identify issues, new opportunities, models and challenges to working differently with communities and heritage. I have a licence to do things differently and hope to bring forward other ideas and perspectives, including from beyond the arts and heritage sector.

I’ll be sharing much of my thinking, conversations and ideas in this blog.  As part of this inquiry, I wanted to work directly with a town or area with rich heritage assets, strong community infrastructure but to date limited investment in heritage activity.  I wanted to start to get to know a place and its people, to understand issues on the ground, where it matters most. Barrow-in-Furness (often called just Barrow) is just that place, situated at the tip of the Furness peninsula on the north-western edge of Morecambe Bay, about 20 minutes drive from the Lake District. It ranks amongst the top 10% deprived areas in England according to the datasets produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government.


The RSA and HLF Heritage Index gives Barrow especially high scores relating to nationally important landscape and natural heritage assets and industrial heritage assets, and overall ranks the town amongst England’s top 6% places (and top 1% for its landscape and natural heritage). Yet it has had amongst the lowest levels of HLF investment and is a priority area for the North West region.

Date: Tuesday 28 March

So, having been working at the wonderful Grizedale Forest the day before,  I left the Lakes behind and headed out west on A590, seemingly to the back of beyond. Eventually, industrial units, housing estates and in the distance a series of looming box-shaped buildings appeared. Known locally as ‘Maggies Farm”, these BAE shipyard structures dominate the skyline and town.

Today was all about starting to meet some of the people, community leaders and changemakers in Barrow – “Barrovians” as I now know to call them. The glorious nature reserves, wild landscape, beaches, ancient monuments and museums would have to wait.   I headed to the imposing Town Hall to meet Councillor Helen Wall. Helen spent her first career working for Barrow’s paper North West Evening Mail and is local born-and-bred. Her love of and ambition for her hometown was infectious. She’d offered to take me on a mystery tour, to uncover the spirit of the town and share the Barrow she cared most about.

Inside the Town Hall, hued from local stone and grand civic aspiration, she told me about Barrow’s history; the four Victorians who built up the town, how within 40 years Barrow went from being a small village on a remote headland to a large industrial town with railway, docks, iron/steelworks and a thriving shipyard. By 1870 it was the largest ironworks in the world and had earned the nickname “the English Chicago.” But its success was inextricably linked to the fortunes of its shipyard, “from boom to deprivation – from an influx of 1000s of workers to lost contracts and uncertain futures, its always been like this”

I heard about the town’s sporting prowess; its love of rugby and football (footballer Emelyn Hughes was born here and then there are the Bluebirds, Barrow AFC, local football team) and that it once produced many world-class table tennis stars (one of Helen’s council colleagues was an ex-member of the national team). And who knew it had one of the UKs leading roller derby teams?  The town has long been a strong supporter of the arts. Arts organisations ArtGene, Signal Films, Dare Dance and Octopus Collective all call the town home. Yet with real sadness, Helen spoke of how, as the cuts deepen, they’ve recently made the difficult decision to outsource the Forum Theatre. Its too early to tell exactly what this will mean but she’s under no illusion this is a huge loss.  This is a council hit harder than many, “deeply bruised” by the severity of the cuts, calculated at 47% over the last 4 years.

What this also means though, suggested Helen, is that the town has developed a sort of “Grow your own” attitude and it’s this we sought.  First stop, Women Community Matters ( an independent community-based charity offering support to vulnerable women. Centre Manager Rebecca sums up their approach, “services delivered with care, kindness, compassion and love”.   One of their clients, in a recent peer-led evaluation, summed it up in yet more poetic terms, “We build on love, on faith, on meeting of minds, A bundle of hope, creativity and rhymes”.  Sounds good to me.

Next a similar approach at LOVE Barrow Families, designed to help improve how health and social care services work together to achieve the best outcomes for complex needs of vulnerable families. Or put more simply, “we give families a chance to stay together and grow”. Both of these community-based organisations (and there are many others locally) spoke about how important a sense of heritage and identity was for their clients and the town and how engaging with heritage could encourage care, kindness, compassion and love. They both had ideas about how communities could and should lead and develop this.  This is what Helen had wanted me to see, what she cares most about and I’m inspired by their collective energy, commitment and vision.  But they’ve never applied for HLF funding. Something is not working at the moment. So I asked, if you ran HLF, what would you do differently?

The processes are so complex and time-consuming. Sometimes I feel we have to promise the earth, but we can’t deliver the earth and that stops me feeling we should apply. You can feel like you’re sending an application into outer space.   There’s a real need to close the gap between groundworkers and funders. Lets find a way to do this.

How do we navigate the different funding streams and providers, it could be a full time job. Imagine if we could put in one application for one brilliant project and then seek the right funder (not the other way round)?

And what if I don’t want to reinvent the wheel? Surely, we should keep supporting the things that work? Why not support us for 10 years or the lifetime of a child so we can make a sustained difference?

They raise critical and often-discussed issues about local knowledge, transparency, longevity and relationship building, relevant to many funders. They explained that many of their clients feel a lot of doors have closed for them, they are excluded from opportunities. The way to approach this is to develop work with an ethos of “nothing about us, without us” and seek to open those doors together.

What would it look like if funders took a similar approach? Is this possible? Their investment may increasingly be place-based, but few are being place-led, as articulated so powerfully in Maria Adebowale-Schwartze’s book the place making factor   How might a funder like HLF work collaboratively for the long-term with communities, other organisations and funders to understand a place, its assets, priroities, idiosyncracies and ambitions?  Over the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring this. I’ll look at other sectors, programmes and funding models. And I’ll be returning to Barrow to meet many more people, listen longer and deeper and together, imagine and consider what would work and what different might look like. I can’t wait…


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