Spotlight: What can we learn from London’s first Borough of Culture?

In 2019 LB Waltham Forest was the Mayor’s first London Borough of Culture, delivering an epic programme of more than 1,000 cultural events and activities. Lorna Lee, Assistant Director, Culture and Heritage, tells us about the highlights of WF19, the challenges of delivering the programme and how lessons learnt from that year are informing the council’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Welcome to the Forest

2019 was an amazing year for LB Waltham Forest. Our London Borough of Culture programme – funded by the council, the GLA, National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and sponsors – attracted over 500,000 visits to cultural events and activities in the borough. Our ten ‘hero events’, designed to attract large audiences, resulted in over £4.1m spent in the local area. More than 1,000 volunteers signed up to help and all 88 of the local schools took part.

But two moments in particular stood out for me. The first one was Welcome to the Forest, our opening event in January 2019. Despite the risks that come with such a high-profile event, it went amazingly well and 70,000 people came along. It involved over 1,000 local residents, schoolchildren, choirs, musicians, poets, rap artists and locally based cultural organisations working with some of the borough’s famous faces to voice their hopes and fears, which resulted in a spectacular projection onto our iconic town hall.

This set the approach for the year: engaging our diverse communities, with support from our superb Legends of The Forest volunteers, to demonstrate the power of culture to bring people together.

WF19 opening event, Welcome to the Forest, at the Town Hall in January 2019. © Andrew Baker

My second personal highlight was seeing the proud faces of parents watching their children perform East Side Story. With the support of Raw Academy and Catalyst in Communities, 22 ‘at-risk’ young people from estates in different areas of the borough, created an original piece of theatre and put on an amazing performance. The show generated valuable networks and opportunities for these young people, and helped to turn their lives around.

But it was also the start of the legacy of WF19, as the Leader of the Council, our Chief Executive and our Director of Families were all watching the performance. Sensing the electricity in the room, it was clear to everybody that cultural programmes like this really can deliver change.

WF19: what went well?

To deliver the programme, the council worked with partner organisations, which resulted in events and activities that were deeply rooted in the local area. Although we always set the brief, by devolving the programme to other organisations and individuals who were better placed to engage specific communities, we were able to reach a much more diverse audience.

Key to the success of the entire programme was co-production. We worked with the creative community in the borough (some of whom, it has to be said, hadn’t been too enthusiastic about the original bid) to develop the programme. Working in this way revealed that both the council and the community were open to listening to and understanding each other, and made our respective roles much clearer for both parties.

Community decision-making panels awarded our Fellowship Funding Make It Happen grants (worth around £270k) for improving cultural spaces and delivering hyper-local events across the borough. Almost all of the projects that received a grant were based in the local area – and it was interesting to see the community panel choose to fund a different range of projects than council officers would have selected.

Another reason for the programme’s success was the fact that we evaluated it on a quarterly basis, rather than waiting until the end of the year. This enabled us to take an iterative approach, responding to and shaping the events as we went along. It also meant we could report back to other teams at the council about what was going well, which bolstered internal support for the programme.

Leader of Waltham Forest Council Clare Coghill and local residents delivering our bid to City Hall. Over 15,000 residents and businesses backed our bid. © Andrew Baker

WF19: the challenges

The biggest challenge we faced was time. Having to put together, and deliver, such a large and diverse programme at speed meant that we didn’t always know what the output would be. I didn’t see the final cut of the Welcome to the Forest projection until the day before the event, for example. Nor could we give as much notice to our colleagues in the Highways and Traffic Department, who wanted to know about road closures and so on.

Everyone had to be on the move and responsive throughout the year. But working at speed also kept things moving, gave the programme momentum and gave us opportunities for continuous learning.

Working with a new team also brought with it certain challenges. Some team members, like myself, had already been working for the council for a while, and others were seconded from different teams. But the majority of the team were new. They hadn’t worked for a local authority before, and weren’t used to our ways of working, systems and departments.

It took a while to get to grips with some of the assumptions they’d made about how local authorities work, and then get things running smoothly. This was demanding but, ultimately, bringing in new people inspired different, more creative perspectives and approaches, and resulted in a more diverse and engaging programme.

Virtual culture: responding to Covid-19

When Covid-19 hit, we were in the middle of a round of legacy grant funding. But we quickly realised that potential recipients wouldn’t be able to deliver these programmes and projects. Because we’d been saying for several years that culture can bring people together, we began to think about how we could use culture to respond positively to the pandemic. We had to remain sensitive to the fact that this is an incredibly challenging time and, for some people, a matter of life and death.

We’ve repurposed this funding to develop the Virtual Culture Programme, a free and accessible programme for all our residents and friends across and outside of the borough to get involved with from home. This is a way of connecting communities during the crisis but also supporting local artists and institutions like William Morris Gallery and Vestry House Museum that have been hard hit by the museum closures.

© Andrew Baker

What we learnt last year about working with partners has informed the delivery of the programme. The council is working with local arts organisations who have better ways of engaging diverse communities, rather than delivering it directly. Setting up the programme has made us reflect on how we can continue to engage with residents once the crisis is over. The strategies we’ve developed for reaching isolated and vulnerable people, for example, should become routine.

After WF19 came to an end, my team moved to the Economic Growth Directorate. We’d already started to think about how culture could help revitalise our high streets and local retail, but this is even more important now.

As a team, we’re moving out of crisis thinking and starting to look at different plans and scenarios we can put in place to support communities and local businesses. This reflects the main themes of our legacy programme: Culture as a Bond, Culture as our Identity, and Culture as a Catalyst for the Future.

Top tips for future Boroughs of Culture

  • Measuring the numbers (through surveys and so on) is fairly straightforward. But don’t forget to gather the case studies and local stories that reveal people’s emotional responses to your events. As WF19 went on, we shifted more towards gathering qualitative data because we realised stories and emotions were a much more powerful testament to the programme’s success.
  • Evaluating is resource intensive so accept that you won’t be able to measure everything. We used our 10 ‘hero events’, including Walthamstow Garden Party, Art Night and Chingfest, to measure economic impact.
  • Putting a new team together to lead and develop both the bid and programme is great, and will bring in new ideas, approaches and ways of working. But this will go more smoothly if you induct people into local authority working practices at the outset.

LB Brent is hosting the next Borough of Culture but is rescheduling its programme until later in 2020. LB Lewisham’s year is moving to 2022, and LB Croydon will host the programme in 2023.

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