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Central London’s celebrated cultural offer is in peril

This focused, coordinated set of measures can not only rescue the sector, but position it to lead the recovery
23.09.2020

​This article was originally published on the Central Forward London blog.

London, the city of Zadie Smith and Shakespeare’s Globe, grime and the Royal Albert Hall, Steve McQueen and the National Gallery, has long had an enthralling culture, helping to attract attention, visitors, and investment from across the globe.

But culture in central London is now in crisis. While most attractions have reopened following the Covid-19 lockdown, social distancing means that they operate at much reduced capacities. Many of these destinations are pitched to international visitors - but London now enjoys far fewer of these. Reduced journeys into central London from outer London and elsewhere in the UK have further limited footfall.

As demand for retail and hospitality has collapsed, spending on culture has also nosedived. We project this will contribute toward a loss of over 50,000 jobs in the cultural sector of central London in 2020, with three-quarters of these job losses among freelancers.

As vital as it is to save London’s cultural sector, this challenge cannot be viewed in isolation from broader challenges facing central London. The sector can be key to recovering central London’s growth engines, including footfall, and to securing new sources of dynamism, innovation, and inclusion. This requires three kinds of action:

1. Coordination: Around a strategy to recover footfall in central London

  • By bringing creativity to audiences and public spaces in engaging ways, culture can help to re-attract footfall to central London throughout the day and week – smoothing demand for public transport
  • OperaCamion has brought opera to new public spaces and audiences in Rome. While Soho’s al fresco dinning has been one of summer’s delights, a side order of culture in pop up and meanwhile spaces could further assist central London footfall
  • Culture’s role in re-animating central London should be coordinated with other activities (e.g. retail, hospitality), the transport system (i.e. TfL), and the various tiers of London government (i.e. central government, GLA, boroughs).

2. Preservation: Of London’s cultural capital – within its cultural workforce and assets

  • The workforce would be assisted by improved access to HMRC support for freelancers, a sector specific extension to the HMRC Job Retention Scheme, and upskilling to align capacities with growth opportunities
  • Being unable to operate at financially viable capacities under social distancing supports culture’s case for tailored and ongoing HMRC support. Point-of-Interaction testing would resolve this – theatres and other cultural venues could safely return to full capacities through a reliable, on-the-spot test for Covid-19. R&D to develop such a test should be encouraged
  • If the worst does happen and cultural venues decide to close, planning authorities could seek to preserve London’s longer-term cultural capital by adopting a ‘refuse to lose’ approach, i.e. refusing to grant change of use applications for cultural assets, encouraging the return of these facilities to cultural uses.

3. Growth: For cultural organisations, creative workers, and London communities

  • While reduced capacities remain, some new combination of live and digital experiences may help to recover revenues for the cultural sector. Some new digital experiences have been well received (e.g. Nick Cave’s online concert from Alexandra Palace in July will be screened in cinemas from November), but the sweet spot combination of live and digital experiences remains elusive for most cultural venues. Unlocking this combination is another kind of R&D to be supported
  • The lives of London residents can be enriched by a cultural sector looking to compensate for reduced international visitors by deeper engagement with local communities – as the Barbican have brought new activities to Leytonstone, deeper partnerships between inner and outer London have refreshed motivation
  • With central London rents experiencing downward pressure for the first time in many years, there is also an increased likelihood of success for strategies to reverse the long-term trend of central London being too expensive for artists to live and work – especially for those from less affluent backgrounds. Offices that are no longer required could become artists studios and/or converted to residential accommodation for key workers, with artists considered as a category of key worker.

There is a bright, creative future for central London – but the immediate challenge of preserving London’s cultural capital must first be overcome.

Jonathan Todd, Chief Economist

Image credit: Fas Khan on Unsplash