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‘Humanising our public spaces’


Post by Jenny Hughes

‘Some suggested areas of work include:

  • Community led design – railings, pavings, play areas etc.;
  • Arts and cultural festivals – to celebrate communities;
  • Community development projects – video, photography, local history, drama;
  • Tenants news – local community art input;
  • Art to support finding bids – use of video/photography;
  • Art as focus for reminiscence projects – involving elderly and young to develop intergenerational community bonds.’

These quotes come from a Bolton Council’s Housing Committee – Cultural Sub Committee report in 1997, which provided a plan for mobilising the Housing Committee’s agreement to allocate 1% of its capital expenditure to art and cultural activity. In 1997, this commitment amounted to around £100,000 annually – and from this report, the renowned and inspiring Percent for Art scheme emerged. At present, Bolton at Home – a social housing agency with 18,000 properties across Bolton – employ four art officers who work with others to develop arts projects in Bolton neighbourhoods. As far as I can tell, the Percent for Art scheme is nationally if not internationally unique in its determination to incorporate arts and cultural activity into the core missions of housing regeneration and community development. According to The Parliamentary Review, in its first 10 years, Percent for Art supported 152 arts projects ‘to a value of almost £1 million … with match funding of at least £1.25 million levered’. It commissioned more than 100 artists and creative workers in that period, and engaged over 8000 tenants. The Parliamentary Review report also lists the impacts of the scheme, evidenced by a retrospective impact study – including community, environmental, economic and other impacts. Read the full impact study carried out by Creative Options Consultancy here (you can find the executive summary here).

Bolton at Home’s partnership with the Octagon Theatre is a case study for the Poor Theatre’s research, and the aim is to creative a visual and textual scrapbook representing the partnership on our map and database. In this post I respond to one challenge of this work – which relates to the sheer variety of art activities relevant to the partnership, and the fluid, organic and responsive ways these activities emerge, interrelate and grow over time and in space. The initiatives led by the Octagon have each had a life of their own – and each has their own signature feel, born of the people and places involved. These activities have a relationship to the arts and cultural activity connected to Percent for Art, but the ways in which this happens is different dependent on area. Percent for Art activities can also be very different from each other, depending on what a group wants to do, the particular nature of the neighbourhood, and other contingencies of time and place. Then there are all kinds of other initiatives – the digital storytelling activities of Ed Pink (formerly of tenantspin) – see his film of Bolton at Home’s contribution to the Manchester Day Parade 2015 here – and the award-winning As Rare as Rubies blog developed by Len Grant – for example, are discrete and wonderful Bolton at Home initiatives, that also demonstrate the ways in which Bolton at Home has made cultural activity a core part of its mission.

In response – this blog post is a kind of tour – around links, resources, projects – connected to the partnership between Bolton at Home and the Octagon Theatre and/or Percent for Art. The aim here is to show the extraordinary and inspiring richness of arts and social housing activity in Bolton at the time of writing. But please note – this is a partial view only – I’m still learning, and have only looked at two of the four Percent for Art areas, and I feel sure that I have not captured everything going on in each of these even.

A useful place to start is a short film (9 minutes) giving an overview of the Bolton at Home and Octagon Theatre partnership at the time of writing


This film includes Jon Lord – Chief Executive of Bolton at Home – describing how the partnership enriches lives and neighbourhoods, and opens up new horizons – confounding assumptions that the theatre is where ‘lots of posh people go’. On the film, you can also see Vicky and Angela – longtime participants of the Willows project and core members of the adult group currently meeting weekly at the Octagon – talking about the impact of the partnership on them. This group is currently working on a film written by Vicky and Angela, called Marge and Vera, inspired by the Octagon’s 2012 production of Jim Cartwright’s Little Voice

On the film – you will also meet members of ‘Melodramatics’ – a women’s theatre group based in New Bury, currently working on their first piece of live performance, Seeing Red, exploring domestic violence, to be performed by the group at the Octagon on 21st and 22nd September 2015 at the Octagon. Book a ticket for Seeing Red here!

The film itself – by the way – was created by The Box TV – a fantastic community-based film company and long-term partner of Bolton at Home (demonstrating the housing association’s commitment to working with local artists). The Box TV work with groups across Bolton to make films that tell their stories and they also run film clubs in neighbourhoods.

Next stop is the overview of the partnership presented by Lisa O’Neill Rogan at the European Parliament in Brussels on 14th July 2015. Until recently, Lisa was Associate Director at the Octagon Theatre and she led partnership activity for a number of years. You can view her presentation here:


and (in case that link doesn’t work) –


Lisa gives an overview of the theatre’s free cultural offer to Bolton at Home tenants, stressing the partnership’s commitment to providing opportunities for social connection and dialogue, as well as the shared ethos between the two organisations of empowering communities, building capacity, bringing people together, addressing community cohesion and social and economic regeneration. Lisa emphasises the importance of making a long-term commitment to neighbourhoods and she describes example projects, including a recent project that brought together Sudanese and Somalian women to address female genital mutilation and that drew on theatre to facilitate a process by which the women addressed issues in their own way, culminating in a performance at a national conference.

For more from Octagon staff on the partnership with Bolton at Home have a look at our interviews with Roddy Gauld, Chief Executive of the Octagon Theatre, and Lisa O’Neill herself. To locate these filmed interviews, go to the research map and select ‘Bolton’ in the ‘region’ box. You’ll find the films under the Octagon flag situated in the town centre.

Next stop – another short film, but this one gives a sense of the history of community development work associated with the partnership, focusing on the way early work on the Willows estate provided a model for later practicehttp://octagonbolton.co.uk/the-willows-project

And for more on the theatre’s presence on the Willows estate, have a look at a presentation available on the Curious Minds website, which features some of the key players behind the work – https://vimeo.com/61707194

Next stop – as part of the documentation of the partnership, the Poor Theatres research is following two groups – the Cawdor Campbell action group and also Melodramatics, with the help of Ben Dunn (a PhD student at the University of Manchester researching theatre and community). Both groups come under the remit of Dawn Obe-Yates, Percent for Art Officer for Bolton South. The Cawdor Campbell group was set up after removing drug dealers and others associated with anti-social behaviour on the Cawdor Campbell estate – a combined police and housing association effort (reportedly there had been up to 200 drug deals a day happening on the estate). Since then, the resident’s action group have been involved in organising a range of activities – litter picks, Easter egg hunts, art and craft workshops, carol singing, food growing initiatives – all aimed at improving the neighbourhood, and these activities, together with a sensitive housing policy now in operation, have created a radically different feel on the estate.

Find out more about the Cawdor Campbell group from this film on You Tube –

And from this write up –


Interestingly – the plan was to use drama to support the work of the group, with Lisa from the Octagon being part of sessions early on, but in line with the responsive nature of the partnership and Percent for Art scheme (and although they regularly take up the offer of free theatre tickets), the group found that other activities were more to their taste. I conducted a series of interviews with the group in July, during their sessions with visual artist Dani Gaines in the beautiful Willow Hey community growing space. The work with Dani included creating a ‘yarnbombed’ tree, painting impressionist style signage boards, making dream catchers, decorative hand printing, and other art and craft activity to beautify the growing space.

This is just a snapshot of current partnership and Percent for Art activity in one area – Bolton South. Look out for interviews with Dawn Obe-Yates, the Cawdor Campbell group, Melodramatics, to be uploaded on the database soon.

To finish off, I want to travel sideways and up to give a snapshot of the last few years of Percent for Art activity in Bolton East – this information comes from a conversation with Percent for Art Officer for Bolton East, Gaynor Cox (look out for an interview with Gaynor to be uploaded to the database soon, which will give more detail on the initiatives described below).

photobreightmet – a photography project led by Les Monaghan in 2010-11 – Les spent six months in Breightmet in Bolton, working closely with residents to create a series of images that challenged negative preconceptions of the area. Have a look at a booklet of images from this project, with accompanying commentary linking the project to the Mass Observation phenomena started in Bolton in the 1930s

Mr One Million – a film created with young men in Breightmet in 2011, telling the story of the one millionth young unemployed person. Film makers Paul Hine and Mark Haig and writer Louise Wallwein, worked with young men in Breightmet to develop the script and create the film, which featured the actor Ciaran Griffiths (known for his work with the popular television drama Shameless). Watch Mr One Million here, and an evaluation of the project, with powerful testimony from the young men here.

If these walls could talk … – a beautiful art installation created by three women’s groups, working with writer Louise Wallwein in 2011. From their writing, the women worked with artists to create a house full of thoughts and feelings – walls of a house were whitewashed and a sound artist, textile artist, the local ‘Knit and Natter’ group and a graphic artist came together with the group to stitch their words into textiles, transcribe them onto walls, and record them as motion activated soundscapes. Listen to the sound recordings here, and view a booklet produced about the project here.

Social Housing Arts Network – an 18-month project run by Guild, ongoing at the time of writing in 2015 and funded by Arts Council England, working with four housing providers nationally, including Bolton at Home. A steering group of community members was put together, and they commissioned writer Sarah Butler to engage with new refugee communities in the area. Watch a short film of Sarah describing the early part of this work on the Social Housing Arts Network news blog here. As part of the project, a group of refugees were taken on a tour of the area, including to the Breightmet UCAN centre, with its ‘not shop’ (a place for exchanging clothes and other items for free) and allotment. This led to the discovery of an interest in food growing, subsequent cooking sessions and an aim to write a recipe book – watch the Social Housing Art Network blog for updates.

And, for a historical overview … there are two books that feature the early history of Percent for Art, both produced by the community publishing specialist, Pontefract Press and written by Brian Lewis (an artist that George Caswell, former CEO of Bolton at Home, credits with helping Percent for Art get off the ground – an interview with George will be uploaded to the database soon) –

Brian Lewis and George Caswell. 2001. (eds) Creative Solutions: The use of the arts in regeneration, Bolton MBC & Pontefract Press

Brian Lewis and Karen Maitland 2005. Three Stars and a Beacon: Bolton’s Experience of Housing Regeneration, Pontefract Press

And finally … have a look at this short film and review of Door to Door in the Guardian – a large-scale outdoor film projection made by film artists Matt and Rob Vale in 2008, featuring Bolton at Home tenants and neighbourhoods. The project celebrated ten years of Housing Percent For Art.

Thanks to George Caswell, Glenys Campbell, Gaynor Cox, Dawn Obe-Yates, Lisa O’Neill Rogan, the Cawdor Campbell group and Melodramatics for supporting the research so far.

More posts on the partnership between Octagon Theatre and Bolton at Home, and Percent for Art, here:

A unique partnership between a regional theatre and social housing

Humanising our public spaces – part 2

Conversation is an activity to be valued in itself (guest post by Lauren Ash)

Seeing Red – Melodramatics (part 1)

Seeing Red – Melodramatics (part 2)


Blog post by Jenny Hughes

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