New vision for City’s Culture Mile raises issues of accountability

This is the second of a series of posts providing background about issues to be discussed at the community meeting organised by the Culture Mile BID on July 18. First post including details of the meeting here.

Two sets of proposals are now emerging for improvements to streets and spaces in the north west of the City of London: one for Smithfield which I reported earlier this week, and one to be revealed at a community meeting on July 18. The latter raises issues of community engagement and democratic accountability, which I first reported on last year.

The £12 million Smithfield plans are being developed by the City Corporation, and the others are a public realm study commissioned by the Business Improvement District. This post revisits earlier plans for the area, which have now been dropped, but may provide a benchmark against which to judge new plans.

The Culture Mile BID website only says about the current Public Realm Strategy:

“This piece of work will draw upon and tie together existing strategies, public realm schemes and developments. The overall ambition is to provide a collective vision for public realm in the Culture Mile area, guiding future initiatives, and tackling urban realm and movement challenges”.

The earlier plans were launched as “Culture Mile” by the Corporation in 2017. The Corporation then said that “this ambitious and transformational initiative will create a vibrant cultural area in the north-west corner of the City over the next 10 to 15 years.

“Stretching just under a mile from Farringdon to Moorgate, Culture Mile will have creative exchange, cultural collaboration and learning at its core in an area where 2,000 years of history collide with the world’s best in culture”.

Image: key areas in the Look and Feel strategy described below.

Culture Mile was a partnership of the Corporation with the Barbican Centre, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London Symphony Orchestra and Museum of London. In addition to a cultural offering there were ambitious plans launched a year later for the physical transformation of the area, together with new information systems.

This Look and Feel strategy, commissioned by the Corporation, would costs £350,000 to prepare, according to a committee report in 2016. It provides a benchmark against which the latest initiatives might be judged. Here’s how it was described in City Matters by the then City Policy Chief Catherine McGuinness:

“We want to create a ‘Cultural Spine’ running from the site of the new museum in West Smithfield though Long Lane, Beech Street and on to Moorgate through Silk Street.

“The Cultural Spine will prioritise pedestrian movement, offering better connections at ground level, direct routes, improved air quality creating a healthier environment, and providing visitors with the confidence to wander and explore.

“We will bring the area’s world-class cultural activities into the streets to activate them, taking the ‘inside out’. We will create a destination known for both generating and consuming culture, by using vacant or under-utilised spaces and providing cultural infrastructure to animate the streets and the area’s hidden activities, developing new places for local community activity.

“We want to create a ‘Cultural Spine’ running from the site of the new museum in West Smithfield though Long Lane, Beech Street and on to Moorgate through Silk Street”.

Here’s a video produced by Culture Mile in 2019. Like the public realm designs or not, it gives an idea of the ambition of the plans.

The original Culture Mile partnership and Corporation officer team were disbanded in 2023, as I reported here, with some of the functions being taken over by a Culture Mile Business Improvement District.

Now that new plans are emerging for the Culture Mile area I though it would be useful to highlight the original vision, which was developed with extensive community engagement.

I’ve taken the pdf of the Look and Feel strategy document – which you can find here – and turned it into flip-book. You can toggle full-screen with controls below the book.

I think that in many ways the Culture Mile BID brings benefits to the area, including funding from businesses and grants for community groups. More on its website here.

However, one key problem is that it has no accountability to the City’s elected Members – or the electorate. Apart from one observer, the Board is drawn from business and large organisations. If residents feel it is not delivering, there not much we can do about. That makes community engagement, and collaboration with elected Members, particularly important.

As I wrote earlier, I welcomed an invitation to the BID’s community event on July 18, as the first evidence that it aims to engage with residents.

The problem is that we will have only an hour or so to hear about the public realm strategy, proposals for a community forum, and the grants programme. There was no consultation with elected Members on the date, which means some key people probably won’t be able to come. There’s been no attempt – that I know of – to collaborate with Members in formulating ideas for the forum, or the public realm strategy.

Unlike the Look and Feel strategy of 2016-18 there has been minimal community engagement, as I first reported here.

The Culture Mile area includes the majority of the City’s residential population in the Barbican and Golden Lane Estate; it is key element in the Destination City programme to attract more visitors to the Square Mile; Smithfield is likely to be the area of greatest change in the City over the next ten years with development of of the new Museum and likely re-use of the Meat Market buildings.

The BID website doesn’t recognise the importance of the area. The homepage has a map with large blobs for key locations, but minimal information. The Inspiring Places section says: “A series of local walks have been curated and delivered to assist with wayfinding and to foster a sense of belonging and ownership for those working and living in the footprint”…. but there is no map or link.

It doesn’t seem to me appropriate that a new vision for the area is developed by an unaccountable organisation without adequate community consultation or collaboration with elected Members – then launched in a few minutes in a crowded agenda. The meeting on July 18 is welcome, but should be part of a comprehensive programme of engagement matching that undertaken for the original Culture Mile Look and Feel strategy.

We need to know where responsibility for Culture Mile lies. A report to Culture, Heritage and Libraries Committee in January 2023, about disbanding the original team, said that “The transformation of Culture Mile’s public realm will continue in the hands of the City Corporation’s Environment Department” … which now doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’ll check in with the BID and elected Members to see whether I am off-track here

Update: I’ve now posted Culture Mile: what is it, where is significant, and who is accountable?

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