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On the level: what Civic Engagement must now do for London

  • 15 October 2021
  • By Frances Corner

As Goldsmiths launches a Civic University Agreement co-developed with 11 anchor institutions in the London Borough of Lewisham, Warden Professor Frances Corner OBE reflects on what Civic Engagement means for London in the era of levelling up. Frances is on Twitter @FCorner.

London is in the firing line these days. At the Conservative Party Conference in October, the Prime Minister stated the Government will use the levelling up agenda to cool down parts of the ‘overheating’ south-east.

There is a risk that for London it could be a bucket of cold water. It is clear that from now until a general election, the relentless focus will be outside of the capital, fixed on voters in former Red Wall seats in the Midlands and Northern England.

For universities like Goldsmiths and the community we call home, this poses a significant challenge. The evidence we have seen so far of levelling up is a £2 million cut to central funding because of our location and academic offer.

With our home borough of Lewisham being among England’s poorest areas, the withdrawal of this funding looks more like ‘punching down’ than ‘levelling up’. Our activities generate £91 million for Lewisham, supporting 2,500 jobs in the Borough and a total of 3,600 jobs in London. These cuts to London Weighting represent a body blow to our local community.

Against this backdrop, it might seem a challenging time for Goldsmiths, alongside other London universities, to be making major commitments to civic engagement.

But we have to be bold. The challenges facing us and our surrounding community are real and they are stark and they require positive action to address them.

With a population of 303,000, Lewisham is equivalent in size to the city of Newcastle and contains numerous areas of multiple deprivation. We may only be 10 minutes by train from the City of London but for many Lewisham residents the wealth created by the Square Mile is a world away.

We have been hit hard by COVID, which has seen shutters going down on many local businesses. We also face challenges in relation to ecological issues such as air pollution – a local girl, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a contributory cause of death at inquest.

We need to put up a fight for Lewisham and its people – and the best way of doing this is by joining forces with our local partners. That’s what we’ve done with 11 local organisations including the NHS, Lewisham Council, a homeless charity and educational and cultural institutions under the umbrella of a Civic University Agreement.

We know there is a huge amount to celebrate in our borough. Lewisham is among the most ethnically diverse areas of London, with two out of every five residents from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds and home to more than 75 nationalities. It has incredible parks and green spaces, and valuable cultural resources, too. The Albany Arts Centre, the Horniman Museum and, more recently, the UK’s first dedicated Migration Museum, are all based in the borough. We are a place with a long tradition of cultural radicalism and where many creatives choose to make their homes today. All of this is reflected in the decision to make Lewisham the London Borough of Culture in 2022.

The Civic University Agreement is a platform for bringing new initiatives to life, benefitting all local people across education, jobs, culture, health and environmental sustainability.

One such project is our Law Clinic, where Goldsmiths Law students will provide legal services to residents and local businesses, supervised by the legal experts of our Law Department.

As levelling up accelerates, we want these kinds of projects to offer direct support that makes a positive difference to people’s lives. Civic engagement has always been a clear duty for universities to undertake but for communities like Lewisham it has now taken on even more importance – by ensuring that no one is left behind.

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