London mayor plans ‘Oyster-style’ culture card

Natalie Woolman

Londoners could soon be able to use an Oyster-style culture card designed to encourage repeat attendance at arts events across the capital.

The proposal is part of the Mayor of London’s new draft culture strategy, which opened for public consultation this week. The strategy, Cultural Metropolis, is an updated version of a document of the same name published in 2008 and covers 2010 to 2014, including the Olympics. Former Mayor Ken Livingstone published the capital’s first culture strategy in 2004.

The idea of a culture card has been mooted in the past but mayor Boris Johnson has now set up a working group to look into the development of a card that will “incentivise participation in cultural activities”. According to the strategy, the first stage of the project could begin early next year.

The mayor’s adviser for arts and culture Munira Mirza said there was no firm brief for the card yet but that, with smartcard technology, the remit might be extended beyond cultural services.

Mirza said the working party would look to learn from schemes such as Arts Council England’s free ticket scheme that allowed under-26s to see A Night Less Ordinary. She told The Stage: “I think what is really important is that giving away free things, free tickets, free access to things, is not in itself the only way in which you build an audience.

“I know that there has been concern in the theatre world that that scheme was thought up a bit hastily and imposed on them and, while some of the theatres have been able to get some benefits from it, it hasn’t really worked. If we were going to introduce a Londoners’ card and it had a cultural element then we would really want the cultural sector to understand it and feed into it properly and that’s why it takes a bit of time to gestate.”

The Greater London Authority (GLA) is talking to Transport for London and London borough councils, as well as a number of other stakeholders, about how the card could work.

Meanwhile, in the strategy, Johnson suggests a review of the effect of the visa-points immigration system on London’s cultural sector.

The report states: “The new Home Office points system, with its requirements with regard to non-EU artists who wish to perform or exhibit in the UK, has been sufficiently onerous and costly to cause some of London’s smaller arts venues to cancel shows and narrow the range of their programming.”

Mirza said the mayor had not announced it as a formal call to government to conduct a review. Rather, it was one of a number of factors suggested to enable the capital to compete with its rivals.

Cutting red tape is a general theme of the strategy, which highlights the issues for the sector arising from both the 2003 Licensing Act and Criminal Records Bureau checks, as well as the visa points system.

It warns that the mayor “has relatively few direct powers on these matters”, but that “he will use his position to resist any excessive regulatory policies or practices” that put an unnecessary strain on cultural activities and organisations in London at all levels.

The mayor’s power to shelter London’s arts organisations from the funding cuts that many are expecting from both local and central government is also limited. GLA is not a major direct funder of arts in the capital and the mayor does not have a single delivery agency comparable to Transport for London for culture. Therefore, his part in limiting potential cuts to the sector will largely be through advocacy and co-ordination work.

However, Mirza commented: “Among London boroughs there has been a change in the last ten to 15 years, that they increasingly see the value of their investment, the value of Arts Council investment, the massive value of Lottery investment.

“I think London and the boroughs in London are much more appreciative of the value of culture than they used to be and that advocacy has worked to quite an extent. But, the reality is no one is going to be completely immune from these cuts and what we want the boroughs to start doing – and we have started looking into this for music education – is look at how they could work together more effectively so that they are pooling their resources.”

Research for the strategy reveals that 17,285 theatrical performances are held in major theatres in London per year – higher than figures for New York, Paris or Shanghai – and that 71% of Londoners feel that it is important that taxpayers’ money continues to be invested in London’s culture during difficult economic times.

The public can offer feedback on the draft strategy using a web-based questionnaire for the next three months. The document and feedback information is available at:

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