Our Head of Learning and Influence, Emily Diamand writes about our HeART of the Matter speaker and discussion event, Planning – a Participatory Art? on 25 April at Bishop Auckland Town Hall

“There is a phenomenal resource in the arts and the community. I urge you to work with people and communities to use that resource.”

When the afternoon includes singing along to protest folksongs, you know you aren’t at an average town planning conference, but that’s exactly what happened at Northern Heartlands’ latest Heart of the Matter event. And while planning for our towns and villages is definitely important, and often controversial, it’s rare that you’ll find people talking about bravery, fun, beauty and inspiration in the context of planning.

“Whenever we talk about ‘art’, we separate it, but art and culture is already there in people, it shouldn’t be brought in just for consultation.”

Maybe it was using theatre, music and performance to tackle what can feel like a very dry topic. Cap a Pie theatre company gave us an extract of their interactive theatre piece the Town Meeting, while Dr Paul Cowie from Newcastle University explained the research that underpinned the production. The performers of Land of Promise included the Head of Policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, and they used music, poetry and readings to take the audience past the technicalities of planning law into the raw emotion we all feel about the places we live in.

“This performance should be shown to County Council planners everywhere!”

Or perhaps it was the sheer volume of ideas in the room, which came from the extraordinary mix of planners, developers, councillors, artists, musicians, researchers and community representatives who turned up to the day. It was a privilege to be surrounded by expertise of every kind. During the audience and panel discussions, and in every conversation I had, it felt like sparks were being struck.

“If you abandon places, you abandon people.”

The Heart of the Matter series can only ever be a starting point – in one day we can only raise questions about how culture links to the places we live in and how we make decisions about them. But we want to continue this conversation, across this area and beyond, and attempt to try and find some answers as to how arts and planning might work together.

If you’d like to be part of this discussion, please get in touch by emailing info@northernheartlands.org

“We’re planting seeds that sometimes grow and spread their branches, or will sometimes be a seasonal flower that blooms only once. The important thing is to scatter the seeds in the first place to see what can grow.”

  • Hugh Ellis, Town and County Planning Association