Tuesday 8 August 2023

Why I do not support Barnet Council's bid to be London Borough of Culture in 2027

Rog T at the party to celebrate the saving 
of Friern Barnet Library in 2012

Barnet Council has begun the process of bidding to become the London Borough of Culture in 2027. As far as I am concerned, this bid is completely ridiculous and a waste of taxpayers money that would and should be far better spent on developing culture in the Borough to the point where a bid might be justified.

As I write this, I am completing the cultural survey that the council has posted on Twitter. It brought home to me just how poor the cultural offering is currently in Barnet. Please don't get me wrong. I am all for the Council spending money to develop a cultural identity, but this should be done before any bids are submitted. What is being done is simply a wasteful vanity project that will set culture back, rather than bring it to the forefront of our cultural life. I go to gigs more or less every week. In the last six months, I've been to the Mill Hill Music Festival and The Bull Arts Theatre in the Borough, as well as appearing at the Mill Hill Services Club and the Bacon Lane Club, along with a gig at Stephens house. I also saw a friends band at the East Barnet British Legion. The Borough does not have a single, dedicated music venue (along the lines of the Dublin Castle, 100 Club, Hope & Anchor). There are few pubs that sporadically have music. As to Theatre, we have the Arts Depot that has a regular programme of events and the Bull Theatre which has some pruductions. As Barnet has the largest population of any London Borough, we are chronically underserved culturally. Whilst Barnet has improved from the days when they were trying to close libraries under the Conservatives, there are has been no actual improvement in access to culture locally. There is much waffle, but even this year we've seen community assets closing.

Through my work at the studios, where we rent sound equipment, we know of just about every church hall, youth club etc in the Borough that hosts music events. If you compare Barnet to our neighbouring London  boroughs, such as Camden, Brent and Enfield, we are miles behind. Enfield in terms of Theatre provision, which is perhaps the most similar has The Chickenshed, The Millfield Theatre and The Dugdale Centre and a  similar selection of pubs doing sporadic music. I'm not criticising the Arts Depot or the Bull who do great things, but they are on the East of the Borough and there is almost nothing on the west side. Over the last 20 years, we've lost a whole stack of local festivals, including The Finchley Carnival, The Watling Festival and this year we failed to stage the well respected East Barnet Festival. 

For the Borough of Barnet to be credible, we need to show a commitment to Theatre, Music, Dance and other cultural activities across the Borough and on a regular basis. Until this is established, we shouldn't even begin to consider any sort of bid. 

In May of 2022, the then new Leader of Barnet Council, Barry Rawlings asked me to help the Borough draw up a new cultural strategy to address this shortfall. I told Barry that I was fully on board and would back his efforts 100%. As someone who has run a studio complex for 44 years, played in a gigging band, performing at over 40 venues in the Borough since 1979 and a member of the Mill Hill Music Festival and North Finchley Festival organising committee, as well as on the music committee for the East Barnet Festival, I believed I was uniquely placed to assist. I know just about everyone involved in live music in Barnet. I attended several meetings and was excited when Barnet recruited a new team to push this forward. I produced a draft strategy for discussion and circulated it. I heard nothing back. In February, I was contacted to be told that my services were not required on the steering committee. It seems my CV was not up to scratch. I was informed that I'd be on the "experts panel" instead, advising the committee. This seemed rather odd but I am familair with the council, so wasn't entirely surprised. I heard nothing further. In July, I saw this on Linkedin and so I posted the following reply..

As I suspected, I'd been completely cut out of the process and I was not considered even to be a partner worth inviting. A week after I posted the tweet, a council official phoned me to ask why I'd posted the tweet and told me that they still wanted me to be fully involved, just not a part of the steering committee or any other part of the planning process. They said they'd not contacted me for six months because "other things had been going on behind the scenes". 

So why did this happen? It is clear to me that there are four main reasons, as far as I can see.

1. They did not like my view that the council should not spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on consultants to draw up strategies. My view was that the money would be better spend developing hyper-local, grass roots arts projects across the Borough.

2. They also did not like my view that the council needed to identify its artistic assets before they started drawing up a strategy. The Council official informed me that this had been done. I know for a fact that none of the organisations I talk to had spoken to at the time of our conversation. My view was that the council needed to develop a collaborative culture amongst arts organisations, before we would be ready to start to formally develop the strategy. An audit of our artistic resources would allow us to build on what we have.

3. They did not like my view that the larger vested interests in the Borough should not monopolise policy. Generally they tend to see such execises as opportunities to hoover up funds and grants, rather than to generate artistic activity.

4. They didn't like the fact that I was stating that we were in no fit state as a Borough to make a credible bid.

It is clear to me that there are many well meaning people involved in the process. It is also clear to me that very few are genuinely interested in working outside of their own little bubble. I am truly appalled at the lack of interest amongsth Barnet's councillors, both Tory and Labour, for local arts. Unless they came in disguse, not a single one attended the Mill Hill Music Festival, although it ran for seven days and was a stunning success. No one contacted us from the Council to ask how it had gone, what they could do to assist us or what our plans were for the next festival or the one beyond that, which will take place in 2027, when the bid, if successful, is recognised.

I concluded my conversation with the Council Official by stating that I will always be 100% happy to assist any grassroots project to improve the cultural life of Barnet. Our company will continue to work to do this, as we have for 44 years. What I am not preapred to do is waste time working on projects, where they do not even have the common courtesy to tell me that my services are not required.

Our company, in any given year gives between £25-50,000 support to local projects, mostly in heavily discounted logistics support and free studio time. I had planned to encorporate this as part of my submissions for the bid, but as we are not deemed key partners, we will simply continue as we always have, doing this quietly and behind the scenes, not making a song and dance of it. 

The Barnet Council bid is based on fresh air and PR waffle. Many amazing hyper local projects, which should form the basis of it, are likely to be excluded. I am sure it will be well presented and have some good things, but the sad thing is that Barnet does have assets that should be developed to support the bid. The bid should be based on Barnet being diverse with a myriad of different groups, doing wonderful things, not a few large organisations trying to take on Camden with a few community projects as an afterthought. 

As I mentioned, I drew up a rough draft in July 2022, in my own time, free of charge (not a big deal). I circulated this. To the best of my knowledge, not a single person at the council read it. I also circulated it to other partners in the community, who were keen to participate. They provided some excellent feedback and asked me to get them involved ASAP. As the council never actually came back to me, it all stopped there. As far as I am concerned, I am done with Barnet Council, just as they were done with me in February. I cant, in all good conscience, justify wasting time with people who do not even have the common courtesy to say "Thanks but no thanks" and can't be bothered to read and respond to things you've spent weeks putting together. I genuinely thought that Barnet had turned a new leaf last May. It is now clear to me that the Officers and Officials have no more real interest in the people of Barnet than they had under the previous Conservative regime. I know this post may ruffle a few feathers. That is a good thing.

I will leave the last word on Barnet Council to Dave Cox, who is an Admin on the wonderful Barnet Music Facebook page, which does more than anyone to promote music in Barnet. You'd think such a key stakeholder would be fully engaged with the Culture bid process. He was unaware of it and posted this less than a week ago.

I am interested to hear people’s views about Barnet Borough Council in relation to music. Do you think that the council sees music as an asset or a nuisance.
Don’t turn this post into a bash the council fest. The council do have public consultations and use their collected survey data to administer services.
However as I recall they made no mention of music (I could be wrong) in their most recent consultation. Under leisure and activities the emphasis was on parks and sports.
What is also clear is that the Council has administered noise abatement notices to many live music places which have resulted in their closure. Many of these places no longer exist as places of entertainment and are now either residential or retail or part of a larger redevelopment scheme.
Also all of the rehearsal premises in High Barnet were forced to close by residential development projects.
If the council recognised the importance of those premises and the need for them then perhaps it could have insisted on the replacement of the facilities that were being lost in the development in the planning application. Insisting that rehearsal facilities with adequate sound isolation are included in the plan as well as other business premises that are lost when industrial properties are developed into residential.
But these things would only be recognised as important by the council if local people made clear to the council how important they are.
I don’t know how people feel about this.
Maybe the council are right to consider that live music is a public nuisance and isn’t very important.
If live music is important but is also a nuisance then we need premises which are designed for purpose with proper sound proofing in the design.

If you are interested, here is my draft strategy. Please feel free to tell me what you think.

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A culture strategy for the Borough of Barnet (draft)

Introduction

The first question to answer is “Why does the London Borough of Barnet need a culture strategy?”. There are several reasons. A vibrant creative scene brings people together, generates opportunities for the people living in the Borough, especially young people and improves the health and wellbeing of the people living in the Borough. If we have good things to look forward to,  a pleasant environment and our young people have creative outlets, our Borough will become happier and more successful. London leads the world in many spheres of creative activities, but the London Borough of Barnet is one of the drier areas for cultural life.

The second question to answer is “What should we aim to achieve with a cultural strategy?”. The answer to this is perhaps harder, as many diverse groups see the priorities as very different. However as a local authority seeking to improve the cultural life of the Borough and spending cash on the project, the answer should be that we choose to develop a strategy that opens up participation in cultural activities to those who are currently excluded and gives creative opportunities to those who are currently denied them. We should remove as many barrier as possible to participating in creative activities and we should aim that when we spend public money on culture, where possible it is on sustainable projects that also have a legacy.

The third question to answer is how we actually get those we are not engaging with to participate in cultural activities. This is the hardest question to answer. It would be relatively easy to engage with people who already have a degree of access and the means to participate and make wonderful opportunities available, but for many this would often mean simply subsidising activities that they would be participating in anyway. Getting those who would benefit most to participate in the cultural life of the Borough is a hard ask. Many will be suspicious and many will have a negative attitude to authority, so will not immediately be drawn to participate.

So how do we achieve these aims

The principles

I would start by defining what our principles are when we define the strategy. I would base everything on three simple principles.

1)      There is no such thing as a negative cultural activity, although sometimes they can be in the wrong place or at the wrong time.

2)      No one should ever be excluded from participation although there may be scenarios where the participation needs a degree of management

3)      The strategy should empower those participating in to define their own projects and goals. The culture strategy should simply give them tools, support and mentoring to succeed.

What do we mean by this?

Lets start with negative cultural activity.  Let’s take an activity such as graffiti, which is a problem in parts of Barnet. It costs the council a large amount of time and money removing it. The young people who are involved in graffiti see themselves as artists taking on the system. It would be very easy to simply dismiss them as a nuisance and seek strategies to suppress them. However, maybe we should view them as artists who are simply not being given the space and support to make a positive contribution to the cultural life of the Borough. What if we embraced their talents, found spaces that they could brighten up and gave the support and mentoring to do murals in dark, drab places that would benefit from being brightened up? If we gave them the opportunity to show that they could do more than scrawl on brick walls, in the knowledge that their efforts would be painted over tomorrow? Some people may object to such a scheme, but how else do we engage. It is worth remembering that one of the Uk’s best known artists, Banksy, started out as a street artist. There are plenty of drab spaces that with a bit of creativity could brighten up.

What do we mean by no one should be excluded, but some participation must be managed. It is not always appropriate for everyone to participate in every scenario. As an extreme example, someone in prison for violent crime would not be let out to participate in a music or painting scheme, but if they wanted to learn to paint, play a musical instrument or write, then that opportunity should be made available. Such schemes do help reduce re-offending levels. There are also many elderly resident of Barnet, who never get considered when we discuss culture. This is a blind spot we should address. Some may be vulnerable so there safety must be a consideration

Finally, one of the failures of many projects is that they are not designed by those they who are the target audience. Across Barnet, there are all manner of people and groups who have dreams of setting up cultural projects. These could be writing books, making music, painting, staging plays, concerts, running radio stations, staging raves. Many do not know where to start, how to get the space, etc. They have no mentors who can guide them. So the dreams remain just that.

What we need to provide

The first challenge is to connect. How do we do this? How do we engage with those who we seek to help. The worst way is to say “lets start from scratch”, when there are many existing pathways that we could exploit. The second challenge is to start to develop the potential of those who have a desire to contribute, but who do not have the wherewithal. For this we need community mentors, who are prepared to use their skills and expertise to help develop our cultural life. The third challenge is to provide the physical space to do this. We have faith based spaces, libraries and private concerns. Are these in the right places, do they welcome those we seek to attract?

A first stage should be to audit the cultural life of Barnet, identify organisations that we can partner with, people who can be mentors and spaces where we can build community. We should reach out and offer them the opportunity to participate and build the strategy. It must be made clear that this is not simply an exercise in adding funding streams for what they already do. They must bring something to the party.

By having an auditable baseline, we will also be able to measure the success of our strategy and identify what is working and what isn’t.

How much will all of this cost?

That is impossible to quantify without knowing how much we are currently spending and what we are delivering. By getting organisations to work together, collaborate and develop synergies, rather than working in silo’s and seeing everyone else as the enemy in a constant battle for funds will mean we do more for less. There are all manner of pots of funding which are being missed out on and there are plenty of activities that are not delivering value for money for those who most need it.

What is the Borough of Barnet missing culturally

There are 24 wards in the Borough of Barnet. Neighbouring wards can be very different, take Mill Hill and Burnt Oak. What works in one ward would not work in another. That is why we need to empower communities to develop their own hyper local strategy. It seems ridiculous that we have boarded up shops, when young people have nowhere to go to express themselves or develop cultural skills. What is even more incomprehensible is that these empty spaces could be let to charities, removing the costs of business rates to Landlords. Short term lets, to local cultural organisations that are charities, could provide a win/win for both landlords and the organisations. Getting young people to develop such spaces into viable cultural enterprises, backed by mentors, local entrepreneurs, charities and the local authority, would be an amazing way to deliver cultural provision to all parts of the Borough. Empty spaces spell decay, we can breath life back into our high streets and give local people a real opportunity to participate in their own neighbourhood.

The role of local commercial providers

Any strategy will only be successful if it gets the support of the independent commercial sector in Barnet. People successfully running their own businesses are people who can bring skills and mentorship to the table. There should be synergies they can exploit that will work for them commercially whilst delivering opportunity to people to develop their own creative projects etc. This could be as simple as local galleries and caf├ęs displaying local artwork, local pubs staging local bands.

We need to encourage young entrepreneurs from across the Borough’s diverse cultural and social spectrum to develop cultural projects to build their own CV’s and skills in delivering commercially viable cultural offerings.

We need to ensure that assets of community value are recognised and we lose no more of our key venues, such as the Torrington music venue in Finchley. We need to ensure that any businesses that face short term financial stress due to the pandemic are availed of whatever assistance the council can provide and that in four years time, we have more, not less commercial provision of culture.

The role of the council

The role of the council in all would be multifaceted.  Much of this would simply to be to help signpost these activities. It would be good to see small amounts of easily obtainable seed money for hyper local projects to be made available. I’d like to see this work in two ways. Grants should be available where there is a good case and the opportunity to work with local financial institutions to guarantee small loans where there is a strong business case. This will mean lower interest rates should be available. Of course, financial diligence is a key to this. Some benefits will be tangible. If artists paint murals that result in a decrease in requirements to paint over graffiti, this would have a financial benefit as well as delivering a more pleasant environment. Local councillors will have a key role to play. They should be engaged with local groups and be aware of where the most need is. They should be driving the case for resources for culture in their ward. There should be a degree of equity in resource allocation, but also a bias towards where the greatest need is. This does not mean splashing huge sums on deprived wards to the detriment of relatively better off wards. It means ensuring that there is proper, easily accessible provision for everyone in the Borough of Barnet and an effort to ensure that any cash the council does spend is use on projects that would not happen otherwise and can deliver a measurable improvement in cultural provision.

Summary

The London Borough of Barnet has not had a coherent cultural strategy and funding has too often been guided by vested interests, best able to cope for themselves. We need a step change, where we develop a vision of what we want as the cultural landscape in Barnet. We need as many people as possible to contribute and we need the Borough of Barnet to recognise and support the activities of as many creative people from the diverse array of cultures across the Borough. 

1 comment:

Vince Cooper said...

A thorough, well articulated, pragmatic and realistic statement. Nicely done Roger. Solutions, not problem stating, observation, not criticism .

I wholeheartedly support what you have said. We can only hope that Barnet Council can do the same.

Best, Vince