Event Summary: Priorities for arts and culture in London (by Rob Firman, Austin-Smith:Lord)

Event Summary: Priorities for arts and culture in London (by Rob Firman, Austin-Smith:Lord)

I attended Policy Forum’s ‘Priorities for Arts and Culture’ event in Central London earlier this month, which looked at emerging priorities for policy at City Hall and key challenges for the Capital’s cultural sector.

The event comes at a poignant time for the sector, as policymakers develop a new cultural strategy for London following the Mayoral election, and was timed to facilitate discussion on the impact of the EU referendum result on the Capital’s arts and culture sector – most notably with regards to talent and funding.

The event also covered how national policy is affecting culture and the creative industries in London, such as Government’s Culture White Paper, which included plans for diversity and careers; cultural partnerships; diversified funding; and a review of museums in England.

Here is a summary of my thoughts and observations following the event;


  • Sadiq Khan has made it clear that the arts and infrastructure for the arts is a top priority.
  • The GLA is setting up a London Borough of Culture scheme (similar to existing national and European City of Culture initiatives) to encourage the 32 London Boroughs to invest more in the provision of arts and culture infrastructure.
  • There will be a Creative Spaces funding plan, targeted on Creative Enterprise Zones.
  • There will be a database of venues and a Cultural Infrastructure Plan by 2018 (part of Khan’s manifesto) with a plan for growth through to 2030.
  • None of this policy and ambition is real yet – it is too soon after Khan’s election but expect announcements early in the New Year.


  • Up to age 16 most people move <2 miles radius around their home – in parts of London this will be less than 1 mile. The overwhelming majority of ‘culture’ in London is in Inner London, whilst almost all the young people live in outer London. Cultural engagement by young people (if it is to happen at all) therefore has to be where they live.
  • There is very little infrastructure in outer London, connectivity with schools is vital but rarely happens despite London schools being better than anywhere else in UK (what hope for the rest of the country then?).
  • Accommodation for artists and performers is being lost at an unsustainable rate to ‘more profitable’ development and building use. An interesting example was suggested whereby ‘artists in residence’, are living (cheaply) in upper floors of houses/residential blocks/buildings – the artists have to curate artistic activity in the public areas of the building (ground floor typically) as a condition of residence.
  • Place-making in developments seen as vital for local people and social interaction which absolutely chimes with topics speakers at the Royal Society of Architects in Wales Annual Conference I attended last week. Designers and developers are now leading on this as town planners are still behind the curve.
  • Problems were cited of a generally widespread shortage of good potential sites for arts and culture infrastructure with some that are suitable (one recent example being the dock buildings in Deptford) being sold to overseas investors for basic residential (re)development with no control by planning authorities who apply rules and don’t impose need for arts and culture on developers when they don’t have to.
  • There are 32 London Boroughs. 80% use S106 or formal Planning Gain controls to secure investment in arts and culture infrastructure (including new venues) from developers. All Boroughs claim they have no money of their own to spare on arts and culture capital projects but they remain significant funders of organisations and activities within their patch.
  • Funding bodies represented at the event were GLA, HLF & ACE. A delegate from Grosvenor Estates sought guidance in one Q&A session on what was expected of them as major landowners and developers in respect of delivering facilities and infrastructure for the arts but got a general response from panellists that wasn’t very clear or helpful (probably because policy is still being developed and formed into something from which guidance might flow?).


The first half of the conference was particularly meaningful and interesting from an Architecture and development point of view. The second half centred on how great (Inner) London already is and the even greater opportunities to sustain and enhance existing internationally important and recognised arts and culture institutions into the future because of income generated by global cultural tourism and commercial sponsorship.

Housing is London’s single greatest problem and the problem is compounded for low-paid artists, performers and creative industries employees. Extremely clever solutions are needed to retain a critical mass of artistic activity within the boundaries of the city (including outer London where most people already live). Otherwise (one speaker predicted) they’ll all move to Margate which is apparently the current destination of choice for artists who have already left the City.

The greatest potential for Architectural projects serving arts and culture activity is in the outer London Boroughs now and for the foreseeable future, as that is where the most people already live, where most migration will gravitate towards and where there is currently least infrastructure. These areas are to be the focus of the Mayor’s Borough of Culture exercises and will surely follow regional cities across the UK in generating significant investment in capital projects to fuel and support bids for this accolade.