The search for the first London Borough of Culture has been launched (by Rob Firman, Austin Smith:Lord)


The search for the first London Borough of Culture has been launched (by Rob Firman, Austin Smith:Lord)

I wrote in December about mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans for a London Borough of Culture award scheme which aims to encourage and support London Boroughs to invest in the provision of arts and culture infrastructure. Now that the scheme has been formally launched, it seems like a good time to consider what impact the initiative may have on the capital.

Rob Firman, Austin-Smith:Lord


The mayor, who announced on June 30th that the first London Borough of Culture would be given the title for 2019, said, “I want all Londoners, rich and poor, young and old, to be able to make the most of London’s incredible cultural landscape and reap the rewards”.

The competition will see all 32 of London’s boroughs given the opportunity to bid for more than £1m of funding to stage a programme of cultural events and initiatives. Two boroughs will be named as winners in February 2018, and given the title of London Borough of Culture for 2019 and 2020 respectively. A total budget of around £3m has been allocated for these awards.

Boroughs will be chosen based on their “artistic vision and ambition to deliver outstanding cultural initiatives in their local area, putting communities at the centre of the programme’s design and delivery”. In addition to the winning entries, a further £600,000 will be available to six boroughs who do not win the title, but who put forward “exemplary projects”.

Mayor Khan has suggested that the scheme is “not simply about celebrating cultural gems”. He has highlighted that culture can connect communities, regenerate areas and inspire individuals to experience culture – not just recreationally but also as a profession. With winning boroughs expected to contribute at least 30% of the funding as additional investment, Khan is clearly looking to boroughs for a real commitment to culture.

The idea has clearly been inspired by the UK city of culture concept, which itself took inspiration from the European capital of culture programme, a scheme which has been transformative for UK cities like Liverpool and Glasgow.

Of course, in London, many boroughs are the size of some small cities – Barnet being the largest of the boroughs, and home to some 380,000 residents.


It is clearly in the outlying, poorer boroughs where the opportunity for change is greatest. Residents of Richmond for example, already have access to a choice of 7 theatres, 2 art galleries, 2 museums and have the luxury of Kew Gardens and Hampton Court Palace on their doorstep, offering a wide range of festivals and events.

The cultural options for the 185,000 residents of Barking and Dagenham are, on the other hand far less grandiose, with 2 theatres and 2 historic houses suggesting potential room for expansion of the cultural infrastructure. It’s these sorts of inequalities of course, that the Borough of Culture award seeks to redress – encourage investment in infrastructure, engage with communities and improve quality of life for thousands of people.

The social and economic benefits of the scheme could be immense. Liverpool’s reign as European capital of culture in 2008 saw an increase in visitors to the city of around 34%, generating over £750m for the economy. Media coverage of the city’s cultural attractions double, and for the first time in decades, positive stories focusing on social issues outweighed the negative. And research found 85% of residents agreeing that Liverpool was a better place to live than before.

That said, it is questionable what can be achieved with a £1m investment – a sum that won’t go far when it comes to infrastructure projects. And with a deadline of 7th December 2017 for entries, there is precious little time available for boroughs to develop considered bids that will have lasting value for their communities.

On the face of it, the amount might in fact favour (at least in the short term) those boroughs that already have infrastructure in place, are more able to stage events and that already attract high numbers of visitors.

But surely the objective in the long term (if not the short term) must be to bring the arts and culture to the outer boroughs, to poorer areas, where residents have limited opportunities to visit local theatres or museums, or enjoy exhibitions and festivals – areas which struggle to attract visitors and investment.

This is where the London Borough of Culture can have a real and lasting impact. Where the funding is invested in creating performance spaces from land which has long since fallen into disrepair and misuse. Where local community groups are perhaps given a chance to perform to a wider audience for the first time. This, after all, appears to be the ambition of the project.

And with both Bexley and Havering recently announcing their intention to bid for the title, the signs are good that there will be plenty of applications from outlying boroughs.


We should also remember that there is real long-term potential across the whole of London here. With an annual award, the opportunity for boroughs lies not just with the immediate prize of being crowned London Borough of Culture in 2019 or 2020.

Against a backdrop of ongoing austerity and the housing shortage priority, the outer boroughs can develop their infrastructure strategically for the long term using the Borough of Culture as a target. So rather than abandoning arts and cultural infrastructure altogether, development can be enshrined in local planning.

After all there are 32 boroughs, and given it is unlikely that the same one will win twice in quick succession, the potential is for a 32-year cycle of arts and cultural investment in the city.

But as always, politics could come into play. Despite that the scheme would appear to be a vote-winner, delivering a better perceived quality of life and a boost to the local economy – whether the scheme continues after 2020 remains to be seen, and may depend on whether Khan is re-elected in May 2020.

It would be a shame if it ends there. The potential rewards for Londoners, particularly in outlying boroughs are huge. I grew up near Hull and left at age 18 feeling it was something of a cultural desert. To see that 90% of its population has engaged with the arts since it became UK City of Culture this year is testament to the power of arts and culture to transform perception and if Hull can change perception to that extent it should be a no-brainer for London boroughs to aim for this award.

With the emphasis for so many boroughs squarely on the provision of housing, local government needs to consider how they will help to provide and maintain a good quality of life for its residents. With ever increasing and diverse populations, they need to work to bring communities together in greater harmony. Khan has recognised that cultural infrastructure does just that.

Launching the competition, Khan commented, “now, more than ever there is a pressing need to reach out to our neighbours and celebrate London’s unique and diverse culture”.

It seems that the focus on culture and the arts that Khan’s initiative will bring, could be just what London needs.