TaitMail The race to save London’s soul

I got a rap over the knuckles from Jacqui of Portsmouth after last week’s offering, in which I highlighted the fact that while arts and heritage tourism was up across the country, it was down in London, as reported in the latest Association of Leading Visitor Attractions’ figures.


“There is tourism outside London” she tweeted back “and it’s thriving!” No doubt about it, and especially in Portsmouth (in spite of the Ministry of Defence’s best efforts), and I had hoped it was implicit.
 
But I fear Jacqui’s not going to be best pleased with this week’s tendering, either. This morning Sadiq Khan launched his draft cultural strategy for London, which is not so much about tourism, a great deal about Londoners’ getting the most out of what there is and what there can be. It’s worth £20m, and it’s no surprise that this is the largest amount committed to culture by a London mayor.
 
There have been a few comparisons with Russia lately, but there, while London has traditionally a pub on every corner, St Petersburg has an opera house. Their kids go to ballet in the kind of mood ours go to football matches. Yet the creative industries in our capital contribute £47bn to the London economy and provide one in six jobs there.
 
Here, the artists that created the modern character of places like Shoreditch can no long afford to live and work there (many of them are living and working in Europe now), so Khan and his culture deputy mayor Justine Simons (who has been more or less doing the job since the first mayor’s first day 16 years ago) are creating cultural enterprise zones around the place to make studios and creative workplaces affordable. The boroughs of culture scheme has been contrived to get communities creating and feeling qualified to take part, so that theatres and even opera houses need not be social no-go areas – just financial, and that’s a different problem. The culture seeds programme Khan and Simons also launched today is £1m to be shared in dropsies of £1,000-£5,000 to individuals and small groups to get ideas started, buy a piece of kit, or maybe just set up a screen in a park.
 
There’s a recognition in all of this, too, that a lot of our famous creativity happens at night, in pubs, clubs and venues, and another element of the strategy is not only to keep them open but include new ones in development plans.
 
Its culture and creative animation is what makes London a capital among capitals, Khan says, and that could all be blown away by Brexit. A London Assembly report in January showed that 27,000 jobs are at risk if the government gets it wrong, and Khan sees no sign of it being got right. The free flow of creatives (especially in gaming) between here and Europe is vital, which is why he’s in a hurry to get his framework up and operating in the next year.
 
But it needs to happen in all our cities, and while there is some dialogue -  Khan and Simons went to Hull for a day last year and started a dialogue, he is talking to Liverpool and Manchester as well as New York – it’s not a convention, and there is only a faint version of the Khan blueprint sprouting in Manchester. “All good cities should have decent transport and housing” Khan said today, “but a great city needs to have a soul, and that soul comes from culture.”
 
Meanwhile, the whole Brexit farce seems to be encapsulated in the passport cock-up. The jingoists who are forcing the split with Europe insist that our post-EU passports should be patriotic navy blue instead of republican burgundy, so DCMS had to – in the fair British way – put the contract out to tender. Almost needless to say it was won by a French-Belgian company, but that’s not the supreme irony: that is the name of the British company that lost out, De La Rue. A passport on the road to oblivion.

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