How can councillors help to position the arts, culture and heritage within their council’s priorities? Councillor Ross Willmott of Leicester City Council shares his thoughts. This opinion piece forms part of the inspiring councillor leadership section of our online Culture Hub.
1) How long have you been involved with the arts and culture portfolio, and in what capacity?
I have been involved in the arts as a councillor for over 25 years, and I was Leader of Leicester City Council from 1999-2010. In 2000, I launched the idea of a Cultural Quarter in Leicester. The development of the LCB Depot followed, converting an old bus garage into an exhibition and workspace for arts organisations. This was followed by Curve, our £60m flagship theatre, which opened in 2008. Phoenix Square, a £21.5m digital arts centre, cinema, living and workspace area, opened a year later. Workspaces continue to be developed in the Cultural Quarter, bringing back into use old redundant buildings. These are just a few of the arts, museums and cultural projects I have been involved with.
2) What are the main challenges that your council is currently facing?
The challenge has been to replace or renovate out-of-date buildings, maintain audiences and maintain investment at a time of reduced funding. We have been fortunate with the discovery of the remains of Richard III and the success of Leicester City Football Club, which have boosted visitors to the city. However, these are lucky events, and their impact will wane over time. That is why we see investment in arts and culture as essential to the city’s future success.
3) How does your council plan to ensure that it continues to deliver an effective culture service in the next few years?
We are committed to continuing investment, although inevitably at reduced levels. Our venues have tough income-generating targets and are meeting them. We continue to help community arts projects and have provided buildings for Soft Touch Arts and Leicester Print Workshop for nominal sums. This enabled them to attract grants to develop those buildings. Much of what we have achieved has been in partnership with the Arts Council and we see this and other partnerships as crucial for the future
4) Why is it important for councils to continue to invest in arts and culture services?
Towns and cities need people to live in them, visit them and invest in them if they are to avoid decline. Public investment in the arts is one of the best ways of encouraging this to happen and is a powerful catalyst for regeneration. Building Curve in a rundown part of the city has led to the wholesale regeneration of that area with private and public investment. Old warehouses have been converted into flats and more people are living in the city centre than ever. There are more restaurants and a much greater level of economic activity. A major retailer and a property development company have both said to me that their decision come to Leicester was in part because of the investment we had made in Curve and other arts projects. It showed, they said, that the council was committed to the future of the city and was putting its money into projects that would keep people coming to Leicester.
5) What do you see as the future for council-funded arts and culture services?
I think the future has to be good in those areas where councils have the foresight to invest in the arts and culture. By doing so, they will help to sustain their towns and cities. By not doing so, they risk decline.
This opinion piece has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England.