Last night I was speaking at the mining institute in Newcastle at a roundtable discussing themes from LOCAL – a book my Dad and I published recently. The book is a mix of photography (based on an artist-in-residence period at Cumbria County Council), and text (an essay on local politics & identity), and the roundtable reflected a mix of interests in the photographic process, the politics of creating a piece of work like this, and its relevance to the current national and local political context.
Lots of discussion centred on the potential impact of spending cuts on the North East – impacts that no-one can really prejudge, but that most people felt would be socially damaging. Those asking “where is the growth strategy to get places like Sunderland out of the other side?” are asking the right question. This is where concepts like the big society and the 2020 Commission’s idea of social productivity must have practical impact. And it is precisely because the public sector is such a shaper of economic trajectory (the University in Sunderland, for example) that social productivity – which suggests a more active role for the state – is more likely to help people think through what happens next.
Back around the table, one participant commented on the ‘pace’ of the photographic content of the book – “feels almost rhythmic, like its own council logic of movement but inertia, meetings, decisions, problems, meetings, solutions, meetings…et cetera.” What he was getting at was that the pictures carry a sense of the banal, a sense that nothing changes in the machine of (local) government. Our book was created in 2009, before the current politics took shape. But I wonder if this is true now. Bradford council was reported to have sent every employee a letter warning that ‘their jobs are at risk of reduncancy’. This is hardly everyday – and we should be worried if it is the start of a new politics that considers jobs and people as collateral damage as budgets are quickly balanced.