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24 January 2024

Revolution in the Wirral

Also this week: world-class music in schools, and making space for culture.

By Tony Hall

“The future is Birkenhead” was the slogan on a T-shirt for sale at Future Yard, an energising, enterprising music venue in the middle of the town, when I last visited. This year the future is even bigger: it’s the whole of the Wirral – which, for those who don’t know, is the land opposite Liverpool across the river Mersey. For the next 12 months the Wirral will be Merseyside Borough of Culture, and on 24 January an event was held to announce the programme for the year. The metro mayor Steve Rotheram attended, and the event was presided over by the indefatigable ambassador for culture in the Liverpool City Region, Phil Redmond.

There is already much to be proud of in the Wirral. There’s Birkenhead Park, the first ever municipal park, the progenitor of Central Park in New York, and bidding to become a Unesco World Heritage site. There’s a plan to convert an old railway line into an urban park – Birkenhead’s answer to New York’s High Line. There’s Future Yard itself, the first organisation on the Wirral to win regular funding from the Arts Council. Craig Pennington, its co-founder, told me he wanted musicians from the Wirral to have a place to perform where they live, without crossing the river.

Birkenhead and the Wirral are rebranding as the “Left bank of the Mersey” – a great and timely move.

Wirral in it together

I’ve been watching the Wirral’s cultural scene since an email plopped into my overflowing parliamentary account a couple of years back. It said simply: “You’re from Birkenhead so come help us save the Williamson Art Gallery.” They were right about that, at least: I was born in Birkenhead, as were my father and my grandfather. They were also right about the Williamson, a too often overlooked gem that was under threat of closure because of tough financial decisions Wirral Council was having to make. I’m pleased to say that a group of passionate locals, along with the Wirral South MP, Alison McGovern, and Wirral Council itself, worked together to save the gallery and let it flower. Its latest exhibition, “The Worst Record Covers”, was a delight and made BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.

I can’t tell you how important this all is. Culture has the power to change lives, give identity to an area and instil pride and confidence in a community. It’s interesting that of the mayoralties, only Liverpool City Region has culture, rightly, devolved to it.

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Passing the baton

I have recently become chair of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a group of musicians I’ve long admired. It was formed more than a century ago out of a belief that a great city should have a great orchestra, and has been doing some incredible work – not just on the concert platform under the baton of its new chief conductor, the irrepressible Kazuki Yamada, but also collaborating with musicians from the diverse communities that make up Brum. Most excitingly for all of us who believe in the importance of music in schools, the orchestra has partnered with an academy trust to set up the Shireland CBSO Academy in Sandwell to make sure every child gets a chance to make music. The leitmotif is: excellence to everybody.

So I don’t envy the bankrupt Birmingham City Council and the commissioners sent in to try to balance the books. How can you argue for culture when you’re dealing with hard decisions about social services, for example? Birmingham has been redefining itself, from hosting the Commonwealth Games to attracting major talent such as Carlos Acosta, who runs the Birmingham Royal Ballet. My plea to the commissioners is that in all the hard decisions they have to make, they don’t kill the vision of the cultural city that Birmingham’s 19th-century forefathers believed in.

Showing the way

Leadership matters. I’ve made a podcast with a friend, Laura Empson, called Leading Professional People. For me, of everything that came out of the series, it is leaders giving direction and a vision of how things can be better that is the most important. Because they can.

Words and deeds

I believe that one of the great – and unsung – roles of the House of Lords is the select committees. They’re set up to reflect topics rather than mirror government departments, and therefore demonstrate a real sense of how joined-up and strategic government is.

I’m on the Communications and Digital Committee and in the past few months we’ve been examining the impact of large language models, trying to sort the reality from the hype. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent days reading the draft, and we should be publishing our report soon. Watch this space.

[See also: The Tory media wars]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars