Today Arts Council England is releasing a report into how arts and culture can bring people and pride back to our high streets.

As the report, A High Street Renaissance, goes live, Arts Council Chief Executive Darren Henley writes exclusively for The Northern Echo about the difference the arts can make to our village, town and city centres – and how it can help them recover from the effects of Covid.

Slowly, but very surely, our high streets are coming back to life.

After months of lockdowns and uncertainty, people are returning to our town and city centres. The number of visitors to Darlington, Stockton, Durham and other places across the Tees Valley and County Durham continues to rise.

More and more friends and families are meeting for a cuppa and a chat in the coffee shops in shopping centres like Cornmill and Queen Street in Darlington, and the High Street in Stockton.

It’s encouraging to see, but the sad truth is most of our town and city centres have visibly changed in the last few difficult months.

Gone are household names such as Burtons, Top Shop, Dorothy Perkins and several others. More than 17,500 chain store outlets disappeared last year amid the worst decline on record on our high streets.

But why, you may ask, would I as Chief Executive of Arts Council England, be so concerned about the make-up of our town and city centres?

Well, successful high streets are made up of several elements and not just shops – they do not depend solely on retail offers to secure footfall and spending. Successful high streets offer a combination of experiences and amenities to attract local residents and folk travelling from further afield.

Culture is very much part of that mix.

Museums, libraries, galleries, theatres, festivals and street performers all help support economic growth as well as bringing character, personality and vibrancy to our villages, towns and cities.

On August 9, the Arts Council marks its 75th birthday. The anniversary provides a chance to look at the difference public funding of the arts has made to people and communities, including those across the Tees Valley and County Durham.

Theatre Hullabaloo in Darlington, Lumiere in Durham and ARC Stockton Arts Centre are just three examples of our shared cultural life that are here thanks to public investment. All three perfectly demonstrate culture’s role in supporting the local economy and attracting visitors.

Cultural venues don’t just drive additional footfall, they add to civic pride and help to create a sense of belonging and ownership to a place.

Situated right in the centre of town, ARC Stockton engages with more than 110,000 visitors a year, contributing massively to the spending on the town’s High Street. A 2021 economic impact study reported the venue generates about £4.5m a year to Stockton’s local economy.

People taking part in its artistic programme, learning activities, going to its cinema or hiring various spaces in the venue add massively to the town’s collective coffers – and of course to Stockton’s vibrancy.

ARC sees part of its mission is to increase local high street spending – a strategy that includes co-promotions with local retailers such as Drake the Bookshop, just around the corner.

But the contributions to a local community from arts venues are not just about pounds and pence. Venues also promote, foster and champion local civic pride.

Which is exactly what ARC Stockton does, as Annabel Turpin, its Chief Executive, explains: “Our whole purpose is about increasing local pride, raising aspirations and raising ambitions.”

Such strategies work – in 2016, 83 per cent of residents in IPSOS Mori’s five-yearly survey cited ‘a liking for the town centre’ - up from 69 per cent in 2011, in line with ARC’s aims and objectives.

Annabel and ARC are particularly brilliant at working in partnership to help swell civic pride.

For instance, ARC has helped reshape strategy at Stockton Borough Council. The council recently invested in an 11-person events team to organise about 90 annual events. In addition, Annabel helps to provide strategic leadership to the Tees Valley Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), while the venue’s Operations Manager, Shaun Dowd, chairs the influential Stockton Business Improvement District (BID).

And after Covid lockdowns and restrictions emptied the streets of Stockton town centre, ARC has played a leading role in encouraging people back.

The venue has received two rounds of financial support from the Government’s unprecedented £1.8bn Culture Recovery Fund, created by the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden with the backing of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to keep cultural organisations afloat in the face of the pandemic. The Arts Council is helping to deliver the fund, which has meant that ARC could open as soon as restrictions allowed – immediately drawing people back to the town centre.

It’s not just in Stockton that the arts and culture can help regenerate city and town centres and help them get back on their feet post-Covid.

Our High Street Renaissance report shows 62 per cent of UK adults agree cultural experiences on the high street – any high street – give them a sense of pride about their local area – while they also defend against high street decline in the wake of Covid.Our report also states seven out of ten people believe cultural experiences make their areas better places to live and 60 per cent of people across the UK say culture makes them proud of where they live. That figures rises to 68 per cent in the north of England.

The Government and the Arts Council have invested heavily in the survival of cultural venues during the pandemic. The Culture Recovery Fund is the biggest single such investment in our country’s history. As we slowly emerge from the effects of Covid, there is no doubt culture will play a pivotal role in the recovery of high streets – or that further Government support will be needed to ensure this will continue to happen. High streets are the heart of our communities, but I believe communities need a soul too. And I know creativity and culture can provide that soul.

Making sure there is a space for culture, creativity and the arts on our high streets will mean the traditional heart of our villages, towns and cities will continue to beat for many more years to come.