In 2019, we in Waltham Forest will enjoy a year in the spotlight as the first ever London Borough of Culture. Since winning this honour just nine months ago, we have worked rapidly to put together a world-class programme of events that celebrates the past, present and future of our corner of north east London.
But this year is not only about having a good time – though we certainly hope many of our residents will. It is also about creating opportunities for our young people to improve their life chances, boosting our local economy, using culture to drive inclusive regeneration and bringing our community together through shared experiences that would not otherwise be taking place.
With dramatic cuts to local government since 2010 and the growing pressure on public sector budgets being felt more widely, I am sometimes asked why the council is spending money on culture when there are so many other priorities, such tackling the rise in violent crime that has occurred across capital, building the new homes we need, or meeting the rising demand for children’s and adult social care.
The answer is that this is not an either/or choice. Culture must form part of the response to these challenges. Waltham Forest stands shoulder to shoulder with the Mayor of London’s vision and commitment to culture’s transformative power.
As the UN’s rapporteur recently articulated so powerfully, the levels of child poverty in the UK are, “Not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”. In Waltham Forest, around a third of our young people live in poverty when you take into account high housing costs. As a council we are determined to fight this, despite the difficult national backdrop.
We are a Living Wage accredited employer, we have had a sustainable procurement strategy in place since 2015 that seeks to keep money in our local economy where possible and we have convened a Life Chances Commission, which recently made a series of detailed recommendations. We have begun implementing these, supporting children right through from the early years to their first steps into work after leaving education.
As council leader, I am determined to ensure that we give every young person in this borough the best possible chance in life. But the key is not just to seek to support them as they make their way in the rapidly changing world of employment. As a council we must use all of the means at our disposal to shape the local economy, create the conditions for good work where people will be paid a fair wage, and bring together all of the amazing skills and talents in our community to build better neighbourhoods for everyone.
Waltham Forest is a place of makers and a rapidly growing creative sector, and it has the energy and buzz of a raft of new start-ups. Every pound the council spends on London Borough of Culture will be used to leverage in further investment. We want to use this year to generate new opportunities for young people to pursue careers in these fields, and to build capacity in our community to ensure there is a lasting legacy beyond just the immediate benefits of our year-long programme of events.
Our London Borough of Culture programme will provide opportunities for 100 local young people to gain experience and skills through apprenticeships and work experience placements. We are also building up the links between schools and creative organisations and our engagement with internationally recognised artists such as Zarah Hussain to forge new paths for young people into careers they may previously have felt was not open to them.
This is exemplified by the Eastside Story project. Led by local organisation, RAW Academy, two groups of young people from local estates will come together to tell their own story. This is a year-long programme with mentors such as Sir Matthew Bourne, who grew up in Walthamstow, which will be captured in a BBC documentary and culminate in a reimagining of West Side Story.
We have set an ambitious target of reaching 85 per cent of households during the London Borough of Culture year. In this increasingly fractious and divisive political era, it seems more important than ever to bring people together through shared cultural experiences. In March 2019, Damon Albarn’s Africa Express will come to Leytonstone. Over three days, artists from Africa, Europe and across the UK will work together to produce new music and put fresh twists on old songs. The result will be a five hour show on 29 March – the day Britain is due to leave the European Union – showing how collaboration can break down boundaries.
Culture is a vital element of any response to all of the challenges we in local government strive to tackle. Culture is not an optional add-on, an afterthought, or something that is just nice to have. On the contrary, investment in culture is essential to ensure that everybody enjoys a great quality of life. Culture is how we form the bonds that make us all stronger.
Every day when I walk past Walthamstow Assembly Hall, just next to the Town Hall, I think about the quote from William Morris, emblazoned above the entrance: “Fellowship is life and the absence of fellowship is death.”
Clare Coghill is leader of Labour-run Waltham Forest Council. Read On London’s August 2017 Q&A with her here.