Me holding my iPad at Full Council (artist’s impression)
A few weeks ago, I made my maiden speech as a Westminster City Councillor. It wasn’t actually the first speech I had to write and give as a councillor – that came a few days earlier, when I addressed the Cabinet about the proposed demolition of an estate in my ward – but it was officially my maiden speech, in the sense of the first speech I gave at a Full Council meeting.
I have been given the portfolio of Shadow Cabinet Member for Community – and while that covers things you would most commonly associate with the term ‘community’, such as the voluntary sector and community organisations, it also includes other areas of the Cabinet Member whose brief I am partly shadowing: including libraries, sports & leisure, and arts & culture.
So I decided to make the latter the focus of my maiden speech – not least because, since 2014, Westminster City Council has cut all its funding to the arts. Yes, our borough is home, incredibly, to all the West End theatres and cinemas, Soho music venues, galleries and museums like the National Gallery, opera houses and so much more. We are incredibly privileged to have it all on our doorstep. But as anyone who’s ever wanted to go one of those theatres, cinemas or music venues knows, it can also be extremely – often prohibitively – expensive. Our museums may be largely free, for example (thanks to a Labour government! ;)) but it can still cost you (see the Churchill War Rooms and the London Transport Museum, to name but two in Westminster). And my point – as someone elected to represent Westminster residents – is that a Westminster resident shouldn’t have to pay the same as a rich American tourist to see the Monet Architecture exhibition at the National.
The arts, of course, are dear to my heart. I’ve been a cinema manager in Westminster and a talent scout for comedians in its comedy clubs; I’ve sung jazz in its bars and clubs; I’ve written in its cafes. And since moving to London in 1994, I’ve spent approximately 95% of my disposable income seeing films, plays, musicals and gigs – mostly in Westminster.
But while the political is personal, this isn’t about me: it’s about the residents I now represent in Westminster. And I reckon that improving access to arts and culture for them wouldn’t even cost the Council very much money, if any. I’m fast learning in this role that having the will to do something – and finding others who similarly have that will, whether they’re one’s own party colleagues, fellow councillors from another party, council officers, or local groups, organisations or individuals – is absolutely key. And I’m hopeful that my fellow councillors, and our local cultural organisations, could indeed have the will to improve access to arts for our residents.