Dundee and the Limits of Cultural Regeneration

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 17th 2019

Dundee is the talk of the town. The once forgotten city of Scotland – certainly in the eyes of the Glasgow and Edinburgh chatterati – is now widely celebrated and recognised. It is winning piles of awards and attention, the latest of which being named ‘Sunday Times’ Best Place to Live in Scotland, with Dundee High School-educated Andrew Marr stating that ‘Dundee is certainly a very good idea’.

Dundee’s moment in the sun is well-deserved and has been a long time coming. There is an undoubted buzz, dynamism and can-do attitude which defines much of the city and its civic leadership, and as a Dundonian, I take great pride in my home town being noticed and winning lots of accolades, as the ‘Sunday Times’ states ‘Scotland’s sunniest city is making one big collective creative roar.’

The expectation, and then arrival, of the V&A has undoubtedly acted as a catalyst, but it is more than that. There is the now familiar list of the prestige of being a UNESCO City of Design, the work of the DCA and Dundee Rep, the remaking of the McManus Galleries and the development of world-class tourist experiences such as HMS Discovery and Verdant Works. Then there is the pioneering games industry, science and innovation, and stellar work of Dundee and Abertay universities, along with Duncan of Jordanstone, all of which work in partnership and have local, national and international footprints.

This is a positive story and change, achieved by a civic leadership – including the council, public institutions and wider bodies like Creative Dundee – who have pulled together to create a change mindset for the city and to have an impact. As one civic leader commented ‘The culture needs to be communal and supportive rather than ultra-competitive.’

Yet at the same time as Dundee rightly wins lots of applause and attention, the wider economic and social challenges which the city faces cannot be ignored. Dundee is one of the most creative cities and places in the UK, a city with one of the highest levels of PhDs per head in the UK, but is also one of the most unequal: a place where one can thrive as a success, but it is as grim as it is elsewhere if you are poor. One local councillor states: ‘I worry about what happens when the hype dies. Once you’ve been cool how do you cope with not being cool?’

Dundee has some significant economic and social challenges. It has a 65.0% employment rate – the second lowest such rate for any UK city according to the Centre for Cities; the second lowest rate of business start-ups, and the lowest weekly earnings of any of Scotland’s four biggest cities.

Dundee’s poverty levels are a salutary reminder that hardship and systematic exclusion can still sit next to growth hubs, creativity and the buzz of being hailed as the new – with the latter often used as an excuse to forget and marginalise the parts of the city which do not meet the new ‘official’ success story.

This is something most of the thoughtful public leadership in the city are well aware of the dangers of, as one local representative puts it: ‘We can talk about PR and reputation but we have one in four kids living in poverty; massive underemployment; the council targets an unemployment figure that is completely meaningless because we have the highest proportion of citizens disengaged from the labour market of any city in Britain.’ In the latest figures, Dundee showed a small positive change, going from the lowest employment rate to the second worst (65.0%), being overtaken by Blackburn (64.1%), which still leaves a lot of room for improvement.

The other side of the city is barely touched by the ‘new’ Dundee with its V&A and all its well-intentioned outreach programmes. The high levels of poverty and disadvantage are not aided by a heroin problem in parts of the city, long-term population decline from the early 1970s until recently, and an economic and social divide between north and south of the Kingsway which has become in effect a sort of impervious Berlin Wall in terms of social mobility. It wasn’t always thus, as I can reflect, having grown up north of the Kingsway, in the council estate of Ardler in the 1970s, witnessing an explosion of working class ambition and aspiration, at a time before mass unemployment and deindustrialisation kicked in during the 1980s that parts of the city have never fully recovered from.

It is important to reflect the many Dundees within the council boundaries and not to pose one set of experiences. Dundee has changed for the better in numerous ways in recent times, and the vision and pragmatic can-do approach of local leaders is impressive and delivering results.

Many people in city institutions know the limits of the current paradigms they are operating in. Take the V&A coming to the city. It has created a new locus and a powerful tourist magnet while also inspiring lots of local interest. Yet, the V&A franchise model brought to the banks of the Tay is one whereby cultural regeneration promises great things, but rarely actually delivers. Culture on its own seldom turns around a city and solely drives economic growth. There are no real examples of this anywhere in the world: an unfortunate reality which is eventually going to be reflected in the glossy cultural strategies which everywhere promise city renewal through arts, culture and creativity.

Underpinning these assumptions is an economic model which not only does not work but never has: focused on the winners in the economy, and trying to aid the excluded and displaced by training and skills. This focuses on such nebulous ideas as the knowledge economy and creative classes: all of which are discredited ideas left over from the New Labour era. Ten years after the crash, local economic agencies as well as national governments in Scotland and the UK and elsewhere, still cling to this mindset, despite a wider political awareness of its shortcomings, for want of any other detailed prospectus.

In this age of competitive funding and positioning about so much, Dundee should rightly be proud of having made its mark and its many achievements. However the limits of these undoubted successes in changing the lived experiences and opportunities of so many people in the city should also be acknowledged.

I am proud of the positive changes which have happened in Dundee over the last few years. They show both what can be achieved at the micro-level, but also the wider problem of macro-reality. Beyond the obvious limitations of focusing on awards and lists which have a flavour of the month quality, there is the bigger concern about how do we make a sustainable version of the economy and society which provides sustenance and livelihoods for the vast majority of people.

This is a conversation which ‘Sunday Times’ lists not only do not answer, but actually point in the entirely wrong direction on: to a short-termist, consumerist, debt ridden, environmentally destructive version of the economy. Instead of promoting such a vision of society we have to start investigating and promoting a fundamentally different idea of the economy: one which isn’t based on financialisation of every aspects of our lives, getting individuals and households into debt which is one of the drivers of the UK economy, and which has a version of growth and success which blithely writes off a large section of the population as permanently unproductive.

That vision of a different kind of economy cannot wait on national governments finally getting it. It has to come from citizens, campaigning groups, NGOs and local government shifting their thinking from the unsustainable growth model, and instead finding different, more human and progressive ways of measuring the success of the economy. It has to celebrate the authentic, the unique, the profoundly local, and a version of creativity that isn’t about some spurious creative class, but the full range of the human imagination and possibility, including what do we want the purpose of our economy and society, and cities to be for. Dundee could be the future, showing how far the old new can take you, and the ultimate emptiness of things like ‘Sunday Times’ list-ism.