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Why Sadiq Khan’s election is good news for the arts in London

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Following Sadiq Khan’s victory in the race to become London mayor, the artistic communities of London (and elsewhere in the UK), will be watching with anticipation to see if he is able to make good on a number of his pledges aiming to protect and nurture London’s future as a cultural capital.

In his manifesto for the election, Khan astutely presented himself as a Mayor who would work on behalf of “all Londoners”, and in this spirit, he has pledged a number of arts and culture policies which aim to increase participation and access to London’s wealth of artistic and cultural sites, including a pass that would allow Londoners reduced prices for shows and concerts. Khan’s pledge to make artistic and cultural activity accessible to all is part of his infrastructural plan, which will identify what needs to be done to sustain London’s future as a centre of cultural innovation.

Such pledges demonstrate Khan’s genuine commitment to enriching the cultural production of London through highlighting the issues surrounding the material reality of artistic production in a city like London.

This plan would include the creation of Creative Enterprise Zones, providing dedicated spaces for artists to live and work in, as well as proving protection for music venues such as halls and pubs threatened by new development. Such pledges demonstrate Khan’s genuine commitment to enriching the cultural production of London through highlighting the issues surrounding the material reality of artistic production in a city like London. For example, the price of an average home worth more than twice the average home outside the capital, and the high cost of purchasing and renting property poses an obstruction to the innovative capacities of artists in the capital.

In the UK, the postwar welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and 80s.  It’s no coincidence that the flowering of cultural invention in London in the late 1970s and early 80s in the punk and post punk scenes (think of the radical politics represented by bands like The Clash, combined with a frayed Vivienne Westwood aesthetic), intersected with the increased availability of squatted and cheap property in the city.

It’s no coincidence that the flowering of cultural invention in London in the late 1970s and early 80s in the punk and post punk scenes intersected with the increased availability of squatted and cheap property in the city. 

All that began to change in 1980, when Margaret Thatcher’s government rolled out the right to buy policy, an idea that had been around since the late 1950s when a form of it was proposed by the Labour party. This new version was based on huge discounts, 100% mortgages – and the insistence that councils should use the 50% of the receipts they were allowed to keep to pay down their debts rather than building new houses. Today, just under 8% of us now live in council housing; in 1979, the figure was 42%.

No one expected David Cameron and George Osborne to be any kind of friends to council housing, but their record still raises many concerns. Government investment in social rented housing was cut by two-thirds almost as soon as the Tory/Lib Dem coalition took power.  Now, in a new housing and planning bill, hyped up as the key to “transforming generation rent into generation buy”, the government plan to scrap secure tenancies and are bringing in a ‘pay-to-stay’ scheme, which will leave many of the worst off (artists among them) with little option but to leave their homes.

I believe that while in City Hall, Sadiq Khan will be able to go some way towards protecting and promoting London’s cultural riches for the benefit of the entirety of the UK. 

Sadiq Khan has highlighted how “too many Londoners don’t get to make the most of our city’s cultural assets”, and added that funding for the arts (as in many other low-profit sectors) was being “increasingly stretched”. His acknowledgement of these challenges and a coherent attempt to address them leads me to believe that while in City Hall, he will be able to go some way towards protecting and promoting London’s cultural riches for the benefit of the entirety of the UK.  In Khan’s own words, if London does better, “the whole country benefits”.

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