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'Borough of culture has made community our advocates'

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Waltham Forest LBC’s successful bid to become London’s first borough of culture has re-aligned the council’s relationship with the community, according to chief executive Martin Esom.

Speaking to LGC three months into an ambitious and diverse programme of large-scale one-off events, year-long initiatives and community programmes, Mr Esom said he has already witnessed a significant shift in attitudes to local government in the borough, which is helping to lay the foundations for a lasting legacy.

“The biggest benefit is this convergence of the council and the community,” he said. “I really feel it.

“You feel the community are not against the council. I think there is a respect for what we are trying to do here. You can delude yourself about that sort of stuff, but I go to public meetings now and I don’t get harangued.”

Mr Esom said there has been increased community engagement with the council’s work beyond the borough of culture, citing a recent example of an event about Waltham Forest’s integrated communities pilot being “mobbed for something that could be seen as pretty boring”.

He added residents are now reacting to negative comments about the council on social media, adding “[the community] has been an advocate without being asked”.

This feelgood factor, he says, has contributed to 72% satisfaction rate being recorded in the latest survey undertaken in October, compared to an average of 55% in local government as a whole.

With a focus on the long-term, Waltham Forest has also used its role as the borough of culture to invest in assets, notably securing the future of landmark buildings.

The fate of the grade II-listed EMD cinema in Walthamstow has for decades been the focus of community campaigns calling for it to be renovated and brought back into community use.

The council moved to buy the venue for £2.6m two weeks after the borough of culture was announced, with a plan to turn it into the largest comedy venue in outer London.

Mr Esom described the purchase as “a brave decision” to ensure the cinema was restored to its former glory and the business case is focused on creating the largest comedy venue in outer London.

He said: “We will make between £35m and £52m over a ten-year period. It is symbol how serious we are for this going forward.

“We don’t view borough of culture as a one-year thing where we have lots of great events and then it disappears, we are already writing our legacy strategy.”

Mr Esom said long-term benefits had been built into each aspect of the programme.

For example, the opening show included a projection on the town hall of local young people talking about the challenges they face growing up, including knife crime (14-year-old Jayden Moodie was stabbed to death in the borough days into the New Year), health concerns and housing.

Mr Esom promised the council would respond to those concerns.


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