6 November 2018
In 1898, Lord Rosebery, a former Prime Minister, opened the People’s Palace, describing it as a “palace of pleasure and imagination around which the people may place their affections” and one which would be “open to the people for ever and ever”.
120 years later we’re working hard to keep that promise and on Thursday, Glasgow City Council approved funding to allow this cultural icon to remain open while the adjacent Winter Gardens is closed until the structure is made safe. It’s an important step, but we want to do more; we want to protect and enhance all of the people’s palaces in Glasgow – museums and art galleries, cultural and music institutions and the sport and leisure facilities – which do so much to improve and enrich our lives.
For these are the people’s palaces, they belong to, and are cherished by, our citizens, with emotional bonds built over generations of memories. If there is a ‘Glasgow Miracle’ it is that Glasgow’s nine civic museums attract more than 4 million visitors a year – 22% from our most deprived communities – on a budget of £12 million. Compare that to the National Museums of Scotland’s budget of £27.7 million and 2.7 million visitors. Glasgow gets no national funding for its museums, despite being the biggest, busiest and most efficient museum service in the country. At the People’s Palace, almost one-third, 29% of visitors, come from SIMD1 communities – it is far from a rarefied sanctuary only for the well-heeled. In fact, just this week Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was ranked number one on the UK list of museums on TripAdvisor, ahead of the British Museum and National Gallery.
Glasgow’s people’s palaces include the Mitchell Library, which last month won an award for its work with homeless citizens. In some other places, homeless people might have been told to ‘move on’, but not in our libraries. Our staff recognised that people in desperate need were using the facility and through our on-site partnership with Citizens Advice Scotland, were able to provide life-changing and life-saving support.
Glasgow’s public sport facilities are open to all – providing world-class leisure facilities and for all of our communities, not just those who can afford a private gym membership. We’re home to big festivals such as Celtic Connections, which has at its core a school's programme which brings 12,000 school children together, exposing them to music and creativity, many for the first time.
Our local people’s palaces, our libraries, provide more than just books. We help those living with cancer thanks to an innovative partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support. Working with Citizens Advice and Jobs and Business Glasgow, we provide information and support and our staff are first line of defence for those enduring the worst excesses of Universal Credit. Our people’s palaces provide the safe and supported community spaces when they need them most.
But what we do is not enough. Poverty, social isolation and ill-health blight far too many lives in Glasgow. Loneliness – particularly among young people – is storing up problems for the future. Research proves the power of culture and sport in providing effective and relatively low-cost interventions which provide life-long social, economic and health solutions. It makes people feel better, physically and emotionally and makes them more productive – and in doing so, reduces the costs and pressure on future health and social care budgets, improves educational, employment and economic outcomes and even helps to reduce the numbers exposed to the criminal justice system.
So with budgets still tightening and services still stretched, we need to look afresh at how we deliver on shared social outcomes. It can’t just be local authorities who shoulder the cost of valuable non-statutory arts, cultural and sports provision. A binary choice between funding schools or culture will see only one winner. We need to find new ways to fund culture and sport – understanding that any investment made will deliver measurable results which will, over time, reduce the burden on our health, education and criminal justice systems. If other public bodies benefit, then there must be a new way of delivering – and funding – those goals.
It is a challenge greater than the usual political tribalism that surrounds government funding and one that needs cross-party support. Glasgow is a proven innovator and a proven custodian of our incredible cultural assets and legacy. If we are to stay true to Rosebery’s 120-year-old promise, then we need to find a new way of working, a new way of supporting our cultural and sport infrastructure, protecting our heritage and playing our part in creating a more healthy, happy and productive society. Our people’s palaces are an asset for both city and nation but with the right support and a new, shared ambition, they can and will be so much more.