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.
Anyway, here’s what I said. I didn’t go on quite as long as James Stewart in Mr Smith Goes To Washington, mainly because you’re only given five minutes and there’s a big clock on the wall that counts you down. (Oh, and about the football reference? That’s because the Council meeting was taking place on the night England played Croatia in the World Cup semi-final. My husband even came to support me rather than stay at home/go to a pub and watch the game. The man’s a saint.)
“Thank you Lord Mayor.
It is an absolute honour and privilege to be here making my first speech to Council as a Labour councillor for Churchill Ward – alongside my colleague Cllr Talukder – and as the Shadow Member for Community.
I’d like take this opportunity to publicly thank the previous Churchill Labour Councillor Jason Williams for all his hard work and dedication helping Churchill residents for four years. He is sorely missed by them and I can only hope to continue the good work he did as councillor.
Now – given that there’s a slightly important football match going on tonight, I thought I’d make this a speech of two halves. And I’m going to devote the first half to why I’m sick as a parrot.
When the Cabinet roles were announced following the election in May, I looked keenly to see whose portfolio covered arts and culture. But apparently, no-one’s did – because there was no mention of it at all. It wasn’t until Councillor Hug and I raised this, that the words “…and culture and heritage’’ were tagged on to the end of Cllr Harvey’s portfolio description on the relevant Council website page.
Fast forward to my first Policy & Scrutiny Committee meeting, and I eagerly awaited a closer look at Cllr Harvey’s service areas. Libraries, Registration Services, Business & Enterprise, Physical Activity, Leisure & Sport, Education & Schools, the Voluntary & Community Sector and Westminster Advice Services all got their sections. But once again, arts and culture (and heritage) were notable by their absence – aside from one mention of the creative industries in terms of career opportunities.
It’s difficult not to see these omissions as a lack of interest in arts and culture from this Council, and I find that deeply disappointing. Cllr Harvey’s portfolio is, admittedly, larger than Gareth Southgate’s fanbase – but even so: I’m realising very quickly in my new role that Council decisions and areas of focus are all about priorities. There isn’t enough time or enough money – thanks largely to government cuts – to do everything we’d like to do. But for this Council – which made a decision to cut ALL arts funding in 2013 – not only do arts and culture not get priority, they don’t even get a mention. Instead, our borough is reliant on the brilliant work of arts organisations, the voluntary sector and charities.
Yes, it’s true that we have wonderful arts, culture and heritage on our doorstep here in Westminster. We are a borough like no other on that front, and we are incredibly privileged. But the fact is that some of us are more privileged than others. We are, as it were, a city of two halves. Because going to the theatre, cinema, concerts, exhibitions and so on is prohibitively expensive for many ordinary residents and families in our borough.
So here’s the second half of my speech: what I’d like to ask of Councillor Harvey in his new role.
I ask him not just look at culture in terms of those who want to work in that sector, but to recognise the importance of the arts in all our lives – and to improve access to the arts so that everyone in our borough can enjoy them regardless of income.
After a Westminster resident has enjoyed an extract from a show at the brilliant and free West End Live, let’s look at ways we can help them actually be able to afford to go and see that show.
Let’s see how we can make it so that a Westminster resident doesn’t have to pay the same as a rich American tourist to see a Monet exhibition at the National Gallery.
Let’s find ways to make a Saturday night trip to a West End cinema a properly affordable activity for the average Westminster family.
Let’s work out how we can get young people from Westminster’s BAME communities to see Hamilton for free.
I urge Westminster to learn from Oxford City Council, which charges tourists for entry into its colleges, but lets its residents visit for free. I urge us learn more about Newham Council’s wonderful schemes Every Child A Musician and Every Child A Theatregoer. And I urge us to find out how the RSC in Stratford is able to offer £10 tickets on the day of performance to people who live in the CV37 postcode area. Because where there’s a Will, there’s a way.
I believe, very fundamentally, in the words of Jo Cox, when she said in her maiden speech to Parliament that “We have far more in common with each other than things which divide us”. That is true here in this chamber, it is true out there among residents in Westminster – and one of the things that we all have in common is the power of the arts to make our lives not just enjoyable but bearable.
Culture and heritage, arts and creativity, aren’t just something that are nice to have or something to be looked at in terms of career opportunities – they are, quite simply, essential to our wellbeing as human beings. And I hope that the Cabinet Member will work with me and others to improve access to them in Westminster.”