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The Final Act of London Mayor Boris Johnson

Despite the recent Evening Standard poll that shows just 4% of Londoners think culture should be a priority for the Mayor, it is arguably the cultural offer of museums, theatre, music and architecture that drew the record 4.9 million tourists to London last summer. This brings £856m of tourist spending a year and added £71bn gross value to the UK economy in 2012, writes Fiona Twycross.

The Mayor of London is required to produce a cultural strategy, and in 2010 Boris Johnson published his ‘Cultural Metropolis’. Re-reading the strategy you can sense the anticipation of hosting the Olympic Games, but also the context of a new Government slashing spending on culture. Four years on, the government are speaking of an economic recovery, but the focal point the Olympics Games provided is now over and reductions in state support for the arts are biting hard.

The Mayor recently revisited this 2010 document and produced an ‘updated’ cultural strategy. It would seem to be a lack of tangible progress that led the Mayor to choose to produce an ‘update’, rather than undertaking the necessary consultation with the sector and the London Assembly that a new strategy requires.

London’s cultural sector has shown incredible resilience in difficult times. However, access to arts depends to a large extent on where you are born and who your parents are, and at a time of cuts this trend could be further entrenched.  The disparity between levels of cultural participation across our city is stark. Figures from the 2009 Taking Part survey show that in Kensington and Chelsea, 66.2% of over 16s took part in the arts three or more times in a year,  in Newham that figure was just 28.8%. Up to date figures at a borough level aren’t available, so measuring progress can be tricky in itself. One of the goals of the Olympic Legacy was to achieve ‘cultural convergence’, so the Mayor should at least monitor progress on these goals.

When making decisions about funding, a long-term view should be taken on the economic value the cultural industries contribute to the UK economy. With recent cuts to funding from Arts Council England and by boroughs, arts organisations have to be leaner and even more inventive to survive. This can only go so far, before the cuts damage the ability of organisations to take risks.

In 2010 Boris Johnson was criticised for slashing funding to a series of high-profile multicultural events, including Black History Month, which saw its funding cut from £132,000 to £10,000. The London Development Agency completely axed funding for Africa Day. Funding for St Patrick’s Day and Jewish events were also cut, but at the same time the Mayor redirected £100,000 into a new venture to celebrate America. The shift in funding for these events reflects priorities and shows the difference made by the Mayor of London.

Boris’s Deputy Mayor for Culture, Munira Mirza, recently told the London Assembly that you can’t stop the city evolving. However, artists and the creative industries can suffer when it does. A pattern of ‘progress’ can lead to displacement of the artists and creativity that symbolised ‘evolution’ in the first place, a phenomenon first identified by Sharon Zukin in ‘Loft Living’. The 2010 strategy promised to examine pressures on affordable studio space, with a view to feed into the Mayor’s London Plan. Four years later and the update woefully just repeats this promise, and the opportunity of the 2011 London Plan is long gone.

There seems to be apathy where the Mayor has policy mechanisms at his disposal, matched by an active disinterest in improving life for those employed in London’s cultural sector. That same week that the Plenary took place I spoke at a rally outside City Hall in support of Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union workers from the Ritzy – a cinema in London – who are on strike as PictureHouse, owned by Cineworld will not pay them the London Living Wage.

These workers are the lifeblood of our cultural sector. We must welcome London as a creative hub – but we should make sure Londoners who work in cultural industries are paid enough to live in and enjoy London. Ian McKellen recently called for actors in repertory (generally larger) theatres to be paid a Living Wage. I fully support this, but accept some fringe theatres might struggle to pay the London Living Wage. As a minimum, fringe venues should pay the Equity exceptional minimum rate (£331 per week, 418 Euros). The Mayor may use supportive rhetoric but went back on a commitment to meet striking Ritzy staff to discuss their concerns.

Six years into Boris’s mayoralty it feels like we are into his ‘final act’, not least because he stated he is standing down at the next election. There have been some visible large scale achievements – the Fourth Plinth and Cultural Olympiad. However, following the Olympics in 2012, the Mayor has merely ‘repackaged’ his strategy. The Mayor needs to think about those being paid below the London Living Wage, the music venues threatened with closure and the artists priced out of their studio space. Considering the Mayor’s vision for a Cultural Metropolis, I was reminded of the Fritz Lang’s Metropolis which depicted a futuristic dystopia with a vast gulf separating the classes of their city. Let’s hope the Mayor doesn’t lose sight of the need for a vision of London being a Cultural Metropolis bringing Londoners together.

Fiona Twycross AM is lead member for Economy for the Labour Group on the London Assembly

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