Culture / infrastructure


Artists have been adept at negotiating with landlords, councils and businesses to access the space that they need to make and show work.  In order to do so, they need a good overview of the policies that will impact on the ability and motivation to lend them spaces.  Should you talk more about cost-savings for the landlord, social justice, community access or artistic merit?  Operating in London means artists must grapple with the lowest incomes in the creative sector alongside property developers taking advantage of the EU’s highest land values to draw in international investment.  Commonly held assumptions about the munificence of corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, co-branding opportunities for businesses, corporate desire for local community-building activities or how to convince local councils to lend empty shops may not always hold true and will always come with strings attached.  It’s helpful to learn a little about what motivates different types of property owners to lend space to artists, and a little about the planning context – this article is designed to demystify both of these processes.

Local councils

The purpose of a local council is to provide necessary local services to residents and businesses.  This includes council housing, fire and rescue, environmental health, planning, transport and roads, alcohol licensing, funerals and burial services, social services and, one of the initial services from local councils, waste disposal.  The level of many of these functions is controlled by direct legislation from central government, making it impossible for councils to operate independently.  It’s important to understand that, although councils often provide cultural services, they do not have a statutory responsibility to do so – this is why local arts and other cultural provision has been cut so deeply since 2010, in the face of an expected 40% reduction in local council funding between 2010 and 2020.  Many councils have seen cuts much larger than this already, particularly outside of London and in the poorest areas.  Councils do, however, have a statutory responsibility to provide public library services and parks.

As of October 2017, 143 out of 375 (38%) of local authorities in England and Wales have no dedicated arts officer or direct arts service – traditionally the first point of contact for council cultural services that provided a vital arts network point in many local communities.  The remaining 232 (62%) have services that are vulnerable to cuts and, like pretty much all local authorities, the majority are operating in reduced financial circumstances or folding such services into other leisure activity.  Sitting separately to local councils, the Greater London Authority (GLA) also has no statutory duty to enforce cultural provision even as it has a duty to create a cultural strategy; the GLA works hard to ensure that culture is embedded in its other, statutory functions as much as possible.

Even these difficult times create opportunities for artists to provide cultural activities that councils would like to see happen but are unable to organise (or, often, fund) themselves.  Ultimately, local councillors set the tone for how much and what kind of cultural activities will happen, meaning that direct appeals to, and relationship-building with, councillors to support your activity may prove useful in the longer term.  Many councils will produce a cultural strategy, and aligning your project – and quoting their strategy in your approach – can help them see how your project supports their aims.

Worsening economic conditions since the global financial collapse in 2008 have left many council-owned properties empty for some time.  Too many empty properties on local high streets make local regeneration much more challenging, and it is widely accepted that over-reliance on retail leaves high streets vulnerable to remaining empty for much longer periods.


Artists often tell us that they intend to approach a business for support by making the case for local community-building activities – this, however, is not really a core function of businesses, outside of building a customer base able to afford their products or services.  Companies are intended to make money from trade while limiting the liability of owners should they become bankrupt.  Co-branding opportunities may be tempting for some, if your profile is high enough and your work uncontroversial enough to reflect well on the business supporting you.  Businesses may be more likely to support artists if one or more of their directors are personally interested in the arts, or if the activity will save them money (or cost them nothing).  Making an explicit link between your practice or proposed activity with the activity or brand values of the business is more likely to lead to a successful approach, alongside a compelling economic case, such as temporarily covering rents or insurance, rates relief for donating something to a registered charitable organisation (where this has been set up), or helping them improve their image during specific public relations difficulties.  Anecdotally, much corporate sponsorship of major prestigious art fairs was withdrawn or reduced around 2008 in favour of more civic-minded youth or education programmes during the period of public dissatisfaction immediately after the financial collapse – resources which were then returned to regular corporate sponsorship once the PR storm against financial institutions and luxury brands reduced as time went on.

Remember that companies may be primarily interested in supporting the arts to align themselves with new potential customers.  Arts audiences are on average better educated, wealthier and white, making them attractive targets for business even as this reinforces cultural, economic and ethnic difference in society.

Artists interested in approaching businesses for use of space, or other sponsorship opportunities, can research company directors’ interests on Linked In, Who’s Who, the Financial Times or individual business websites to see what targets may be more amenable to an approach.  Companies with a track-record of supporting the arts, or those with a corporate art collection could be sounder targets.

Cultural policy / Economic policy

Both local councils and successive central governments, particularly from the late 1990s when New Labour came to power, primarily understood culture in terms that would increase economic benefits, including tourism, above all else.  Artists active in this period may also recall the increased focus in audience participation, reaching new heights more recently as culture is enlisted to enhance individual and community wellbeing – a term so new to cultural and health policies as to currently resist one commonly accepted definition, with its rise roughly trackable against cuts to public sector services and the abortive Big Society plans of the 2010 Conservative government, and now quietly dropped.  With continued severe cuts to public services, more and more arts funders anecdotally report a massive increase in applications to funds for projects to help plug the gap left by funding cuts outside of the arts.

Cultural and economic policies have a long and close entwined history.  In the UK it’s long been accepted that increased cultural activity increases local economic impact and therefore Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the pre-eminent mark of economic, and therefore political, success.  GDP simply measures all economic activity within a country over a year, no matter its cause – building prisons and undertaking multi-million pound neighbourhood regeneration programmes are better for GDP than hundreds of free-entry artist-led galleries staffed by volunteers, since it only measures spending activity.  Culture is understood as beneficial to GDP predominantly via tourism: an oft-quoted statistic in favour of cultural support is that four out of five tourists to London come specifically for its culture and heritage.  Culture is rarely seen politically as a good in itself, partly, perhaps, because outside of an economic measure is it difficult to successfully measure its impacts in a way comprehensible to politicians.

Large cultural programmes and festivals are seen as beneficial for the economic growth they bring.  The economic growth of Glasgow after being European Capital of Culture in 1990 is frequently pointed to as the main evidence of its success: “it used to be said of Glasgow, before it was designated cultural capital, that its only visitors were drivers who had got lost on the motorway”.  Building on this political desire for economic growth, major cultural projects in the UK were developed to use culture for economic improvement to cities and regions: perhaps the most emblematic such project was the Angel of the North (1998), shortly followed by the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (2002) and the Sage Gateshead (2004), the latter two proactively established through support and funding from Gateshead Council encouraged by a nearby extensive local residential regeneration programme, Gateshead Quays.

Despite being re-imaged as an arts and cultural quarter, Gateshead Quays was very much seen as a mixed-use regeneration scheme that attempted to alter the private-sector developers’ views of the particular site as well as to ‘help lift the area’. Although the Quays development attracted major National Lottery funding, it is acknowledged that the private sector is the key to future success. The publicly funded developments have, though, been fundamental in altering the perceptions about the viability of development in Gateshead. For example, the architect who designed the new Hilton Hotel and other business complexes in the area stated that without the Baltic Art Gallery and Millennium Bridge ‘none of our clients would have entertained the thought of building in Gateshead’. Furthermore, as the leader of Gateshead Council noted at the opening of the Sage music centre, ‘some years ago we would be struggling to get developers interested in any sites, but now they are interested in talking to us’. Art, Gentrification and Regeneration – quoted from Art, Gentrification and Regeneration – From Artist as Pioneer to Public Arts (2006)

In London, the 2012 Olympics provided new opportunities to consciously develop economic benefits through culture, particularly through the legacy planning around the Olympic Park (now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park) and encouraging ‘keystone’ culture organisations – including the V&A, UAL’s London College of Fashion and Sadler’s Wells – to create a new ‘East Bank’ that will “provide skills and jobs for local people, bring over 10,000 students to the site, and attract thousands of visitors from London and beyond”.  The Mayor of London cites inspiration from “the success of the South Bank in transforming a location through world class art and learning opportunities” in a self-conscious combination of culture and hoped-for city-wide improvement in the economy and local job prospects.  Barking and Dagenham Council’s 2018 approval for affordable housing specifically aimed at artists ties the presence of artists to local regeneration.  “It will [also] function as a community centre that will be run by the 12 resident artists in exchange for affordable, good quality housing” set at 65% of local market rent.

Using empty spaces

With exhibition opportunities increasingly limited by pressures on space in London, many artists create their own opportunities by approaching the owners of temporarily empty buildings.  Artist Dan Thompson who runs The Empty Shops Network has published information on how to approach building owners from an artists’ perspective and compiled Pop Up Business for Dummies, an extensive ‘how to’ guide for exactly this kind of activity.

Artists and gentrification

Local communities may be difficult to persuade to support artistic projects given the pervasive idea that artists cause gentrification.  It is ‘accepted knowledge’ that artists move into run-down communities, make them more pleasant, and then are priced out by nefarious property developers who make large profits from their efforts.  Much research suggests this narrative is incorrect, and that public policy by local councils and national government is actually responsible: belief in the regenerative power of culture alongside lobbying by private developers has a stronger effect on gentrification.  The Cultural Value Report (2016) suggests that fine arts and non-profit activity are associated with slow growth and stable neighbourhoods, and that commercial arts activity – film, TV, design – are instead more closely aligned with gentrification.  Since property developers often license vacant buildings to artists or arts organisations while planning applications are in process, artists can be simply a visible symptom of larger shifts in the complex process of neighbourhood gentrification, but are rarely its cause.  Private developers – who already own the buildings in which artists work – can evict them at short notice when circumstances change, often by their own lobbying efforts around planning and zoning at local councils or national government.  More than this, artists, an overwhelming majority of whom are on tiny incomes, do not have the economic ability to encourage new businesses or shop in the places they supposedly encourage.

Why care about policy?

Public policy is the guidelines that politicians and businesses use to govern their activity.  Policies in favour of the arts can be rare, but those covering planning, citizenship, health, economic growth or other related activity can be leveraged to support arts activities.

We present here an overview of policies forthcoming in London in the next year, or currently out for consultation.

Living / working

Government policy is in favour of mixed-use schemes particularly those that reduce the need for commuting, and live-work projects are normally accepted as fulfilling these criteria.

Live/work units can have two primary uses, i.e. home and work; or one primary and one ‘ancillary’ (or secondary) use, i.e. work with ancillary home use or home with ancillary work use.  The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 is based on single-function classes often seen on estate agents boards, with land and buildings categorised according to a variety of single-function categories. Planning guidance restricts what a building can be used for, and artists looking at spaces should consider what permitted use is available to ensure the landlord can legally allow the activity they want to do. You can find out what uses are permitted from the local council, or from any advertising boards attached to the property.

Estate agent advertising board
Estate agent advertising board showing permitted use for offices – usually class B1, the same designation as artist studios

Dual-use buildings do not in practice sit easily within this system: for example, funeral directors are classified as A1: Shops, but funeral directors always live on the premises.

Three strategies generally get around these restrictions:

  1. Restrict the development of live/work units to the lawful ‘residential with ancillary employment’ use. Ancillary use may not provide the home-based artist with appropriate space to accommodate their occupation (particularly when using more industrial processes).
  2. Ignore the law in this area and operate covertly, potentially criminalising otherwise upstanding artists.
  3. Make a notional separation between the ‘workplace’ and ‘home’ areas of the live/work unit. Sarah Wigglesworth Architects’ Strawbale House, London, has an office with B1: Offices planning permission with a living space with C3(a): Dwellinghouses permission, despite the fact that they are two elements of a single building, with a central space that is a meeting room during the day and a dining room in the evening and at weekends.

London policies for culture and space

The Creative Land Trust (CLT) is an independent organisation (Private Limited Company by guarantee without share capital, pending an application for charitable status) that will provide financing for affordable workspace providers to buy buildings. It will also purchase its own property to be used as permanent workspaces for artists in London, aiming to secure 1,000 affordable workspaces by 2024.

Seed funding for the company comes from the Mayor of London, who has pledged £4m, and Arts Council England, who are giving £2m. Bloomberg Philanthropies have also come on board to fund the Trust at an undisclosed level. Longer term, CLT is asking developers to provide them with funding or buildings, with local authorities invited to help safeguard local affordable workspace. By October 2019 they will be looking for investment and will have an offer ready for investors.

In April 2019 CLT will announce the support on offer to artists, workspace providers and creatives, as well as the decision making process for applications, with a first open call for funding in July 2019.  CLT is based on the San Francisco Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) model which raises money from corporate donations and investments.

Creative Enterprise Zones (CEZ) have been developed to “keep creative Londoners in their neighbourhoods”, providing £5m for co-location of creative businesses, working with councils and cultural organisations.  the first six CEZs in Lambeth, Croydon, Hounslow, Lewisham, Haringey, Hackney and Tower Hamlets will provide workspace, development support, enterprise and skills, clusters and networks, social inclusion, rates relief, and superfast broadband.  The Mayor’s draft Cultural Strategy states that “although each Creative Enterprise Zone will have its own distinctive character, they will bring together artists, local businesses and landowners to develop and create new jobs, establish and secure new spaces for creative production and open up opportunities for talented young people who are considering careers in the creative industries.”

To qualify as a Creative Enterprise Zone, boroughs must focus on four key areas:

  • Space – secure permanent, affordable, creative workspace, and live-work spaces at well below market rents, ensuring no net loss of affordable workspace through new developments in the area.
  • Skills and support – build entrepreneurial skills and offer affordable business support to artists, start-ups, sole traders and small businesses as well as create jobs.
  • Policy – develop Local Plans (planning guidance produced by local authorities, which has to compliment the Mayor’s London Plan, currently in consultation) with pro-culture policies
  • Community – create socially-inclusive places and strengthen links with marginalised communities and education providers so that young and local people can access new jobs within the Creative Enterprise Zone.

An initial pathfinder research project was run in Tottenham in 2017, with ten projects with 11 local authorities (one joint project) receiving £50k to develop proposals in 2018. In December 2018 the Mayor announced that Lambeth (Brixton), Croydon, Hounslow, Lewisham (New Cross and Deptford), Haringey, Hackney Wick and Tower Hamlets will be the capital’s fist six CEZ, promising more than 3,500 new jobs and more than 40,000 m2 of new affordable workspace.

The London Borough of Culture is a festival-oriented annual award, based on the successful EU Cities of Culture programme, beginning in 2019 with Waltham Forest, followed by Brent in 2020.  Barking & Dagenham, Camden, Lambeth and Lewisham will share £850,000 for landmark projects, already identified in their applications, during the same timeframe.

The Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) allows local authorities to raise funds from developers undertaking building projects in the local area. Mayoral CIL is different to borough CIL, although both are collected by the boroughs. Local authorities must spend the CIL on infrastructure. This can include cultural infrastructure – parks and green spaces, play areas, culture and sports facilities. The levy is intended to support new infrastructure, though there are cases when it can repair existing infrastructure where it is necessary to support new development. Mayoral CIL is restricted to spending on roads or other transport facilities such as Crossrail. At least 15 per cent of the levy must be spent on priorities that are agreed with communities in areas where development is taking place, though in some circumstances this can rise to a minimum of 25 per cent where a neighbourhood plan has been adopted. Developers can offer to pay the levy through the provision of infrastructure as well as cash.

The Mayor of London’s Cultural Infrastructure Plan, launched in March 2019, is a suite of tools, advice and guidance. It includes:

The Plan is a seven-point action plan that covers:

  1. Understanding where London’s cultural infrastructure is located
  2. Planning for and creating new cultural infrastructure
  3. Providing major infrastructure
  4. Supporting culture at risk
  5. Increasing investment
  6. Creating policy to enable culture and the creative industries to put down roots
  7. Providing training, networking and guidance

Planning guidance changes and consultation

The Mayor of London is currently consulting on a new London Plan – the strategic document for infrastructure and planning throughout London for the next 20-25 years.  Responding to their own report from 2014 on artist workspace, and the 2018 data note on the same, the Plan contains specific recommendations to halt the rapid decline on affordable artists spaces.

The Plan says (Policy E2 Low-cost business space) that loss of creative work space, specifically including artist studios, must re-provide the same amount of space in new developments, that this should be offered to existing ‘businesses’ (i.e. artists), must be in reasonable proximity to existing provision, and that businesses should be relocated prior to new developments taking place.  It goes on to say (in Policy E3 Affordable workspace) that planning can be used to maintain rents below market levels, with artists’ studios again specifically mentioned as an example.

Note: this article was amended on 11 February 2019 to add updated information on the Creative Land Trust.


About the author

Russell Martin

Russell is a graduate of The Glasgow School of Art who has lived in London since 1998. Initially working in gallery education, his self-initiated projects include workshops, residencies, peer mentoring, artist-led galleries, radio programmes, and a series of interdisciplinary arts social events. Russell is director of Artquest, a member of the board at Block 336 and City and Guilds of London Art School, and an advisor for PRAKSIS, an artist residency in Oslo.

By Russell Martin
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