What will Labour offer on boosting culture in Croydon?

By - Monday 6th January, 2014

Sean Creighton takes a look at why voters should care about cultural activities in Croydon in the lead up to the  local elections

Image by Thomas Hawk and used under Creative Commons license.

Who should be concerned for arts and culture in Croydon? Should it only be those actively involved in delivering arts and other cultural activities? Or a band of community activists, who see culture as an important contribution to economic development building their community? Should it not be a wider concern for all? But do the majority of voters care about the following:

  • the massive investment in the physical structure of Fairfield Halls with no guarantee of a greatly improved programme offer
  • the sale of Riesco Collection items
  • the privatisation of the management of the libraries
  • the revenue funding disengagement of the council from supporting cultural activities
  • the loss of the Warehouse Theatre
  • the closure of the David Lean Cinema

Given the further reduced budget Labour will inherit if they win the local elections in May, and the further cuts they will have to make from 2016-18, what can they offer that is different from the Tories?

Because of the nature of the party political interplay, it is not clear what it is positively offering for cultural development. Perhaps a useful starting point is to look at what Labour was offering in the months leading up to its defeat in the May 2006 council election.

Its big idea was the development of a cultural quarter

This was set out in the magazine Croydon Reports in November 2005 in which there is a discussion on the future of cultural activities as part of the start of a public consultation. Its big idea was the development of a cultural quarter.

“There is no doubt that culture has a key role to play in maintaining the momentum of the town’s regeneration. In physical terms, the area being described as a cultural quarter takes in the whole arc from the proposed Gateway arena in the north-east to the Fairfield renewal in the south-east, across busy Surrey Street and through to the restored Pumping Station in the south-west … In addition, a new theatre and concert space, a more diverse night-time economy, better sports facilities, piazzas where people can enjoy a sense of space, a restyled green area in place of The Queen’s Gardens, along with more public art and street festivals, will contribute to a lasting legacy to be enjoyed for decades to come … In turn, it is expected this will deliver a sense of place and belonging, bringing people together and fostering an enhanced sense of pride.”

There is no doubt that culture has a key role to play in maintaining the momentum of the town’s regeneration

Tony Newman, the then council, and now Labour opposition leader, wrote that “Concentrating cultural activities housed within historic buildings, attractive open space along with restaurants, cafes, bars and shops is seen as a way of reinforcing Croydon’s popular appeal – balancing commercial and architectural progress with entertainment and public participation.”

The cultural strategy in place at the time was called ‘Be Inspired’ for the period 2005-2008, which set out the framework for delivering and improving cultural opportunities. It hoped to deliver:

  • more facilities for young people such as multi-use games areas and children’s entertainment in parks
  • more traditional pubs, outdoor cafés and family-friendly restaurants
  • safer, cleaner parks and open spaces
  • improved borough-wide sports and exercise for all ages
  • opportunities for a more varied programme of entertainment including theatre, live music, classical concerts and cultural activities helping to celebrate cultural diversity
  • encouraging open-air markets, small independent shops and creative businesses
  • new studio and exhibition space in the borough, supporting local artists
  • a new jazz café in Surrey Street
  • investigating funding sources to facilities for all ages
  • redevelop Ashburton and Thornton Heath libraries
  • Croydon Lifetimes Museum redeveloped with Heritage Lottery Funding

So if this is the starting off point for a Labour review of cultural strategy for the coming May election, has it tracked what happened to its plan?

How much of the above has been achieved by the Tories, made irrelevant for the future, and will Labour still wish to endorse. Have the Tories achieved anything positive? After all large scale cuts were not required in their first two years because the world recession caused by the banking system had not happened. What elements of the Labour plan did the Tories decide not to implement and for what reason, or did they absorb some aspects into their changing plans?

Tracking what happened and the changing approach becomes difficult. For example the Croydon Cultural Partnership group within the Local Strategic Partnership (the LSP) was renamed the Croydon Development and Cultural Partnership by the Tories. Although it is listed on croydononline.org there is no link to detail about it, unlike with the three other themed sub-partnerships of the LSP. In fact it appears that the Strategic Partnership and its themed partnerships are held behind closed doors. What else has been going on in the development of cultural activities in the borough that has not involved the council?

Even if there will be no money to what extent can Labour convince cultural activists that it will offer a shift in attitude which would hopefully create a greater sense of the arts being valued, genuinely encouraging community groups and representatives to collaborate? While it is likely to continue the capital investment in Fairfield Halls, how can it stimulate a better programme offer there if it cannot offer revenue funding? Will Labour genuinely be able to work to help empower communities to offer or improve local services? Let’s hope that Labour will spell out its cultural strategy in the coming weeks.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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