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Winning the London Borough of Culture – Waltham Forest

When Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced the opportunity for London boroughs to compete for £1.35m of funding and the prize to be named the very first London Borough of Culture, Waltham Forest had their sights set on success. Lorna Lee, Director of London Borough of Culture 2019, explains how extensive digital campaigning and community engagement won them the title and a gold public service communications award.

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The challenge

Culture-led regeneration has been a key part of our economic growth strategy in Waltham Forest for some time. As a council we recognise that our borough is growing significantly and rapidly. We have one of the youngest average populations and we’ve had the highest business growth over the past year of any other London borough. As our place grows and changes we’re seeing an increased appetite for cultural and leisure facilities as the borough becomes somewhere people increasingly want to live and spend their free time. Offerings like the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow Wetlands, Central Parade with CentrE17, and The Scene entertainment complex have seen us gather a reputation as being a place full of cultural activity. A reputation further enhanced with the number of cultural and creative industries in the borough expanding by 26 per cent since 2015. The opportunity to compete in the London Borough of Culture competition was the perfect chance for us to develop our links between culture and economic regeneration even further and help put our commitment to the borough’s cultural identity on a more sustainable footing for the long term. The challenge for us was how we could give ourselves the best chance of winning.

The solution

We knew that the successful bid would be, in all likelihood, the one that engaged its communities most effectively. We knew from data we had gathered that community spirit was particular strong in the borough, with almost 72 per cent of people surveyed telling us they would be happy to knock on the door of someone in their street if they had a problem. Using this insight of community togetherness we set ourselves the ambitious target of getting 10,000 pledges of support for our bid.

To help achieve this we worked to develop a strategy that put out residents at the centre and focused around them telling their stories about what made Waltham’s Forest’s cultural offering unique and why we should win the bid. This was a borough of culture competition, not a council of culture one, so it was important that it was community-led.

To help achieve this we hosted round table events, collaborated with residents networks and groups and held sessions across the borough at festivals and some of our main cultural sites to explain to people what the bid was and help generate interest and enthusiasm for it.

Although we wanted as many stories as possible to feature we still wanted to produce a bid that had a coherent narrative. We worked with partner organisations and creatives from across the borough to consider what made the culture of Waltham Forest unique and agreed on three broad themes: radicals, makers and fellowship. We used these broad themes as a guide to coproduce compelling stories.  

With interest developing and themes agreed, we moved towards promoting our bid narrative and encouraging people to share their stories across a range of channels. It was vital to us that we used many channels to reach as many community groups as possible, but we did have a focus on digital platforms to encourage shareable content. We worked closely with a social media agency to develop our content and expand our reach. We created an online community hub and microsite where people could pledge support, we had a hashtag (#wfculture19) and created dedicated bid social media accounts where people could share cultural highlights and we could post vibrant content of communities supporting the bid. Online we focused on creating fun, culturally focused content like a Spotify playlist and a daily countdown of 150 cultural highlights in the borough

We created schools packs, badges, window stickers and other collateral that we distributed to residents and businesses in the area so they could visually demonstrate their support. We worked with advocates across the borough’s cultural industries to help spread the word to their networks and even created a march to hand deliver the bid to City Hall.

We also developed a comprehensive internal communications programme, training 150 employees as staff ambassadors to promote our bid message.

The impact

Our extensive activity helped us to achieve more than 16,000 pledges of support – 6,000 more than we set out to secure. We reached out to over 400 influencers with ties to the borough including Fleur East and Damon Albarn and more than 70 partners – from community groups to world-renowned organisations like the Barbican – signed our letter to the Mayor endorsing our bid. Our bid was so successful we won and we’re delighted to be named the first ever London Borough of Culture 2019.

Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it

In many ways winning the bid was just the start and we’ve been working hard with residents, arts organisations, colleagues across the council, our partners and the borough more broadly to co-create an exciting programme of activities that we hope will engage and involve even more people next year. We’re sustaining interest by recruiting more people to our dedicated marketing team and focusing on investor and fundraising events as well as communicating how everyone can take part in the brilliant things we’ve got on offer. A focus on culture has continued to run across the council with our new corporate plan also shaped around the themes of makers, radicals and fellowship to help communities see that this isn’t just a commitment for one year – it is core to the services we want to deliver to residents.

Winning Borough of Culture isn’t just about 2019, it’s about the legacy we create that benefits our existing and future residents, whether it be through place making, improved skills and employment for our younger residents, our creative programmes to involve, educate and excite. 2019 isn’t the destination, it’s just the beginning.

A big part of the bid’s success was the role our communities played in shaping and telling the story of the borough’s strengths. Putting their voices, rather than the council’s, at the centre helped to create a diverse, exciting and authentic story about everything Waltham Forest has to offer. Involving our staff (many of whom are borough residents, too) early on has also helped us on a practical basis as many of our staff ambassadors will also perform volunteer roles during the next year.

Lessons learned

Perhaps the biggest lesson was that maximising community involvement and taking risks can pay off. We were the first borough to submit our bid and we did it in a very confident, bold way. Not everyone was fully on board at the start of the process but we engaged widely throughout the bidding process, and any negativity soon subsided; being brave certainly paid off.

Want to know more?

For more information about this campaign please contact Carly Davis, Communications Manager, at the London Borough of Waltham Forest.