"Culture needs to not be ‘the preserve of the middle classes" insists councillor during Leeds 2023 debate

A councillor from inner-city Leeds has claimed cultural events are “often the domain of the middle classes”, and has called on the council to do more to reach into low-income areas of the city.

By Richard Beecham
Tuesday, 19th October 2021, 4:45 am

Coun James McKenna (Lab), who represents Armley on Leeds City Council, said that while he supports work to bring cultural events into the city, many families are still more concerned with how to make ends meet, and that more should be done to reach them.

The comments came during a discussion on the city’s 2023 culture strategy, which will see more than £32m put into events around Leeds, following the city’s disqualification from the European Capital of Culture bid.

Coun McKenna told a meeting of Leeds City Council’s strategy and resources scrutiny board: “I am quite upset that we did lose capital of culture. It was another price of Brexit, which I absolutely never supported, and our chickens are now coming home to roost on that in many, many areas.

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Handmade Parade, which is usually based in Hebden Bridge, at the Royal Armouries in Leeds Dock to illuminate Light Night with museum menagerie. Picture Tony Johnson

“It is vital that we reach to all communities and we are inclusive.

“We don’t have to make a case for anyone sat around this table to enjoy culture. We do a lot of those things naturally.

“But if you live in areas of my ward like New Wortley, and you have just had your Universal Credit reduced by £20 a week, I’m afraid culture is not going to be part of your plans for getting through the next week.

“You will be thinking more about how you are going to pay the heating for the next week and how you are going to feed your children.”

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According to a paper that went before councillors, the scheme is hoped to create more than 1,000 new jobs as well as boosting visitor numbers to Leeds by 10 per cent, and will have a number of major events outside the city centre.

Coun McKenna said: “I would like to know how you are going to engage in my ward. It is essential that the whole city benefits from this. I’m afraid culture is often the domain of middle classes – I am interested in people who are struggling week-by-week, year-by-year.

“I wouldn’t like to see all major events take place in Leeds City Centre, that would be totally wrong.”

Coun Jonathan Pryor (Lab) responded: “I do disagree that culture is the preserver of middle classes – I believe culture is absolutely for everyone in all parts of society.

“Light night was a great example of that free event that was open to everyone from wherever they are.

“I do want to reassure you that these aren’t going to be some kind of exclusive event and getting to communities is going to be at the heart of it.”

A council officer said the authority would create a “toolkit” to enable it to “get into everybody’s homes” through the network of schools and community engagement work. She added that Light Night events were taken into parts of Kirkstall, Holbeck and Chapeltown for the first time.

Coun McKenna added: “Culture is not available to many people in inner city areas. Any survey would show us that. Culture is very expensive.”

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