Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass,
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas.
And you make them long, and you make them tough.
But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off.
Oh, I know we’ve come a long way,
We’re changing day to day,
So tell me, where do the children play?
Cat Stevens’ lyrics to his song Where Do The Children Play? from his fine 1970 album Tea For The Tillerman came to mind when the other day I passed a former arts venue in Bournemouth which closed about six months ago. Curious to find out what had happened to it, I stopped for a closer look and found that what used to be Centre Stage is being turned into a small Co-op supermarket.
Centre Stage wasn’t quite what its name suggests. It was just out of Bournemouth Town centre. It wasn’t a theatre but it had stage, and a good sized one too. What it was, was a good sized room with a PA system and a Grand Piano holding around maybe 300 people. It was used for weekly Folk and Jazz events (run by different bodies) and probably other creative activities too. I periodically attended the jazz sessions, run by the indefatigable Pat Peiro, and I saw some great names there including Lianne Carroll and Jason Rebello backed by Bournemouth’s excellent FNUK and probably other gigs that have slipped my memory. Add up those weekly concerts and multiply it out over the years and this comprised a significant cultural resource for Bournemouth. And now it is to become a place where you can buy ready meals and carrots.
The children in Cat Stevens’ song are in this instance musicians and any other creative people who used Centre Stage. But the sentiment and message hasn’t changed in the 44 years since Stevens wrote it.
When I was the Arts Officer for Plymouth City Council I found a clause in Plymouth’s Local Area Plan that stated that if a City Centre cultural facility was sold for commercial re-development, the Developer would have to pay for an equivalent facility somewhere else in the city. When the Local Area Plan was reviewed and re-written, I fought for that clause’s retention, and if I recall correctly, I succeeded. We never had the need to test it, and it may have been hard to enforce in reality. But it offered a good bargaining position.
When it comes to building or saving arts facilities you will find that private capital can move at considerable speed whilst public funds move at a snail’s pace. Even financially troubled companies like the Co-op can buy and convert with comparative speed. In such times, the creative arts of all specialisms become nomadic and uncertain.
It needn’t necessarily be this way. When British-owned great works of art and antiquity are sold to foreign buyers, the Arts Minister can block their export licence, pending an opportunity to match the price and retain the work in Britain. Private donors and charitable trusts have proven remarkably generous at raising funds to retain them ‘for the nation’.
Perhaps something equivalent for performing arts facilities is needed possibly harnessing the revolutionary power of crowd funding. Oh, but I am forgetting, that would require Local Authorities to be encouraged to strategically plan their cultural provision (which is so 2000s!) and for Central Government to think strategically about cultural provision, something our current laissez faire coalition government simply doesn’t do. Those absences of imagination leave stages that should be central to our lives becoming marginal and turned into yet more supermarkets.
Meantime, where do the children play?