THE WORD Capital punishment

With many arts organisations missing out on levelling up and Arts Council England support, the existing cultural divide between London and other regions has been exacerbated, says Maria Adebowale-Schwarte, CEO of the Foundation for Future London

Covid-19 had a greater impact on London’s cultural sector than in other parts of the country. Arts organisations in London were less resilient to the pandemic, meaning a slower recovery and reduced grants, employment and training.

Yet it is set to suffer further as more money and focus are shifted to the regions, while funding and encouragement decline in the capital. This is bad news for creative industries worth £58 billion to the capital, and accounting for one in six jobs there.

The government’s £4.8 billion levelling up programme has some positive intention - the ambition to create opportunities for everyone across the UK is a laudable one. It must be a good thing if historically overlooked and under resourced areas were now to be put on a par with those that had been adequately supported. Certainly, nobody in the capital’s arts sector would carp at increased funding for culture in other areas nationwide.

However, alarm bells began to ring when it was announced last year that areas outside London had been placed on a priority list for cultural funding as part of a £75m plan to level up access to the arts. 

This stemmed from the implied and stated position that communities in London and the South East have long enjoyed much greater investment than everywhere else across the board - and particularly in relation to access to creative services and networks.

Factor in the widespread perception that the capital’s arts ecosystem begins and ends with central London’s thriving theatres, galleries, and museums (despite Arts Council England’s grants for London being slashed by £50m last year) - additionally enriched by endless tourist millions – and a huge problem came into sharper focus for its underserved areas.

The "invisible” seven-eighths of the city’s “cultural iceberg”, where arts organisations, social enterprises and other creative industries work to engage and involve the many disadvantaged areas across the vast urban sprawl of outlying boroughs – particularly in East London - is rarely considered or discussed. Meanwhile, only 17% of the capital’s creative/arts sector jobs are held by those from lower income homes, compared to 30% nationally – with the last census revealing that parts of London are among the UK’s most deprived.

Clearly, then, there is an acute disparity of advantage and opportunity, with levelling up needed within these East London communities just as urgently as Swansea, Workington or Glasgow and there was little assessment of the likely impacts of such major changes to funds in the capital.

A lack of employment and training opportunities in the arts for lower income groups has always been an issue. With ticket prices continuing to rise and only the well-heeled able to take unpaid internships to gain a foothold in the sector, every level of access, participation and enjoyment is narrowed for those in lower-income communities.

The lack of accessibility to the arts, in turn, can lead to fewer positive outcomes for people and communities as all cultural experiences become available to smaller groups of people, and art remains “elitist”.

Affected communities are hallmarked by poor social mobility, limited horizons and an exodus of the brightest and bes’ young people. Culture and the arts are positive threads that hold communities together, and they are particularly important forces in disadvantaged areas that may have few other drivers of cohesion. Even discounting the heavy financial and employment costs the diminishing of arts brings to these boroughs, the loss of the pride, aspiration and hope that creativity fosters can cause a decline in overall physical and mental health.

A way to mitigate the heavy body blows of anti-London funding is to enable people and organisations to maintain sustainable communities via three dynamic routes: collaboration, funding and placemaking.

Creative industries and grassroots organisations should strengthen ties and collaborate with their local communities. This means businesses, freelancers and organisations coming together to work on the creative services and products necessary for regeneration and growth.

Likewise, more funders must collaborate to increase capacity across the city. Cross-borough funding activities and knowledge sharing will help achieve greater results and spread opportunities and access to arts and culture to more people. Grant giving organisations should consider options such as micro-grants for smaller projects, which give new artists and creative businesses a boost.  

For example, at Foundation for Future London we recently launched a cultural exchange programme to create  universal support by connecting young, unemployed working-class people from Birmingham, Preston, Sheffield, and East London. This nine-month exchange provides those from some of the UK’s lower income communities with the resources and equal access to the creative industry they need to tackle gentrification and the real issues their communities face.

Community members must be at the heart of how cultural funding is put to work in their areas. Offering place-based support is essential for young creatives to realise their full potential. Organisations can work with local regeneration and planning teams, as well as housing associations, schools and the NHS, to ensure that placemaking and regeneration includes arts and culture, and that public services offer ways for communities to experience arts and culture.

Meanwhile, local leaders and creatives can work with regeneration teams to ensure that arts and culture have a place in developments – such as by commissioning street art and integrating cultural activities – as well as ensuring there are affordable housing and creative space developments.

It is crucial to remember, though, that equitable placemaking isn’t a universal panacea for the corrosive funding gap, and a constructive conversation is needed between the capital’s creative industry stakeholders and government, where our concerns can gain a hearing.

Nobody’s saying that the problems faced by London’s struggling, underfunded communities are unique. Indeed, despite perceptions that it has long been favoured by government, development agencies and the institutions, it faces the same challenges as those across the land and is, therefore, entitled to the same consideration, opportunities, and funding.

We need those with their hands on the levelling up purse strings to adopt a truly universal approach to the project that makes what’s needed the priority - wherever it’s needed - not tick box geographical targeting.

Delivering arts education and talent development opportunities and investing in grassroots organisations will all go a long way to creating the truly level playing field that politicians and opinion formers have promised for decades.

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