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Arts and culture cuts explained

November 23, 2012

Newcastle’s 2013-16 budget proposals have been the subject of much criticism from the city’s arts community.

I can understand the anger and upset, because I share it myself. I’m furious that these cuts have been forced upon us and that some of our city’s best known cultural institutions will have to do with less.

I love to spend a rainy afternoon watching a foreign film at the Tyneside Cinema, I sing in Northern Sinfonia Chorus and I was lucky enough to see the Pitmen Painters three times when it was first staged at Live Theatre.

I’ve seen the regeneration triggered by the Sage and Baltic on the other side of the Tyne, I ‘get’ the argument that investment in culture has led to economic regeneration, jobs and prosperity on both banks of the river.

You don’t have to convince me that the arts matters to Newcastle.

But this is a time for tough choices, and I need to explain to you why investing money in large-scale cultural institutions is not something the council can do over the next four years.

First I need to remind you of the city’s precarious budget position. We face our biggest ever financial challenge. Central government cuts and rising cost pressures mean we will lose a third of our budget between 2013-16.

Our cost pressures, particularly those related to care of the elderly and vulnerable are rocketing. It’s a ‘perfect storm’ that is leading to funding crises not just in Newcastle but in town halls across the land.

Locally, this means we’ve had to take some awful decisions, undoubtedly the worst I have had to make in my political career.

We’ve teamed up with other councils – of all political persuasions – to take the fight to Downing Street and remind policy makers in London of the terrible effects spending cuts have on cities with higher levels of deprivation.

One of our proposals is that we withdraw funding from some of our city’s best-known venues, including Live Theatre, The Tyneside Cinema, Northern Stage and the Theatre Royal.

The reaction has been robust. We’ve been accused of cultural vandalism, of finding easy targets and of disregarding the evidence that vibrant culture helps build a stronger society and a better economy.

I’ve had a letter from Lee Hall, a writer I greatly admire, accusing the council of stabbing itself in the heart. I respect his position and his achievements, but he’s wrong.

Despite the cuts, we will still have a high-quality, comprehensive library network among the best in the country, with a library within 1.5 miles of nearly all residents supported by our marvellous £40m City Library.

This is a time for priorities. Not even the most committed member of the cultural sector could argue that arts come before life and death services like children’s social work.

We’re about essential services. I know we can all argue about what constitutes essential, but for us it’s quite simple. It’s the things we must do otherwise people die or suffer terrible abuse that scars them for life. It’s not funding a theatre or a cinema.

Essential to us means savings lives, it means making sure we have enough children’s social workers, that we have bed-space in hostels, or that we continue to offer a place where people with physical and learning disabilities can go for therapy and where carers get a much-needed break.

I sincerely hope that none of the larger organisations affected by these proposals will close. I don’t dispute they may find things harder, they may have to do less and do it more efficiently, but I don’t think we will lose them altogether.

And the city council is not completely abandoning culture. We will still have an arts development unit that does great, life changing work with some of our most deprived communities. It may be less sexy and less high profile, but it really makes a difference.

And we are working with partners like the Arts Council to see how we can continue to help the cultural sector – though that can’t be with regular funding.

I love the arts, I appreciate what they can do – but I love protecting the vulnerable more.

At the moment I have to prioritise Sure Start Children’s Centres over Centres for Children’s Books. In an ideal world I would have both – but we are where we are.

I respect people’s right to protest and get angry. I want people to be furious, to write to me, or their MP or take part in our budget consultation at Letstalknewcastle.co.uk.

I’m determined that Let’s Talk should not be a platform for those that shout the loudest. I want to make sure those who don’t usually have a voice get one. I know the arts lobby is largely educated, articulate and knows how to pull the levers of power – but I want to makes sure everybody gets heard.

It’s a lot harder to fill in that consultation form when you’re exhausted from looking after a partner with advanced Alzheimers.

We also need to have a broader discussion about who will take the place of local government when it comes to paying for the arts.

How do we attract more private funding? How do we make sure that arts funding is not so London-centric and benefits the regions more? How can the Arts Council, as it downsizes, make a stronger case for the north? It’s a discussion I’m willing to take part in with arts leaders.

The age of austerity that the Government has imposed is upon us, but I believe that the fighting spirit of those of us who believe in an alternative can force a change of heart from the Coalition.

In the meantime, I’d urge you to have your say at www.letstalknewcastle.co.uk/budget2016

15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 23, 2012 6:20 pm

    What alternative strategies did the council explore before deciding to cut all funding and privatise services?

    I bet the answer is “none”.

  2. JohnTollitt permalink
    November 23, 2012 6:45 pm

    As a society, we have gone seriously wrong somewhere, when we are shutting down libraries in one of the worlds richest countries as trillions of pounds are wasted on defence systems that will never be used and similar amounts ate not collected from major corporations. Shame on you.

  3. R Winward permalink
    November 23, 2012 7:49 pm

    Bravo Nick! Let’s not attack the messenger but seek to fight the cause of the problem and find, together, effective solutions. Shouting and moaning may make you feel better but it doesn’t help produce answers. There are positives in this situation so let’s build on these and help take the North East into a positive future rather than a whinging one. Let’s ask ourselves “What can I do to help make things better?” and then do it!

  4. Lee Halpin permalink
    November 23, 2012 11:16 pm

    It is helpful to have finally read a defense of the cuts, as I was beginning to feel swept up in the barrage of diatribes currently freckling the blogosphere. If I add my voice to this debate I want it to be a heard as a rational, balanced and objective voice, not an angry knee-jerk reactionary one. Although I can not condone the course of action Mr. Forbes is held responsible for, and regard the potential bleakness of a Newcastle without the flourishing cultural sector we have become so proud of with great sadness, I do respect his right to defend his course of action and welcome a thorough debate on such a crucial issue.

  5. November 23, 2012 11:57 pm

    I find it interesting that Nick mentions helping the elderly, yet apparently neglects to mention the problems that the much touted “only 1.5 miles to the nearest library” solution will have on them. 1.5 miles is a hell of a long way if you’re disabled, can’t use public transport or are of a particular age and location where the local library is one of your only social outlets.
    What happens to these people? Are they just to be forgotten about?

    1.5 miles is also a hell of a long way for a child. I grew up in a working class mining village and could walk to my local library when I was a child…which is a good job as there was little else to do that might have provided me with the ability to educate myself and generate a sense of ambition that lay beyond my roots. If my nearest library had been 1.5 miles away the alternative was simply that I wouldn’t have gone. Maybe I’d have gone drinking white lightning on street corners or getting involved in gangs. Do you not see the potential social cataclysms you create when you deprive children of access to books and information?

    Also I must say that making arguments such as “Not even the most committed member of the cultural sector could argue that arts come before life and death services” seems hugely simplistic and smacks of divide and rule when it comes to nullifying dissent in the local community. Obviously nobody is going to argue against such a black and white rhetoric, but is that really the only option? Playing health care off against the arts as if we can only have one or the other?

    I don’t remember the arts bringing the country to its knees. But I do remember another group of people doing quite a good job of it, yet their insane salaries are not being curtailed.
    As one local author said earlier in the week, the solution isn’t to cull the arts depriving the areas that need them the most. The solution is much simpler than that: “You just tax the right people properly!”

  6. Ian Kinsey permalink
    November 24, 2012 1:03 am

    What will happen to the books from the libraries which close? Perhaps some of them could be moved to the Central Library as it has far fewer than the old incarnation.

  7. November 24, 2012 1:26 pm

    These and other cuts are short term quick fixes that ultimately do more bad than good. Effect one will be job loses. How much will it cost in benefits for those people? (What has the benefit bill been so far from the council cuts so far?)
    Effect two will be to make Newcastle a less attractive place to visit (just when it was beginning to get its act together) so less income from tourists (is it not true that Manchester and Edinburgh already seem more attractive?)
    one and two together result in less money being spent on the streets of Newcastle which will put a further squeeze on the high street.
    There will also be a reduction in revenue from the vat on ticket sales. (That would go back to central government)

    I don’t know what I’d do if I ran the council though. It’s a problem that has come from central government. It’s their mistake. Most anger should be directed in that direction.

  8. Former passionate Labour supporter long since and continually betrayed by Labour permalink
    November 24, 2012 3:03 pm

    There are hard choices to be made but this reply is simplistic, divisive, patronising and politicking. Yes arts supporters are vocal, that is EXACTLY the reason why 100% cuts have been mooted. This was lighting the touchpaper to get exactly the reaction it has had.

    That is what bothers me about all this more than the cuts to some of these institutions. Instead of using the arts to help deliver economic growth and support the essential services and the people you say you want to help you’ve used them to score political points.

    Lee Hall has looked at the council budget (copied below) and raises some interesting points on why this this move doesn’t make sense….

    “Like most people connected with the Arts I was stunned by Newcastle Council’s announcement this week to cut the entire Arts budget for the City (£1.6m). It seemed a completely unnecessary draconian gesture but in the context of the £90m deficit trumpeted by the Council one wonders if it’s inevitable, no matter how strong the cultural argument against it. However, when I looked at the report I saw a very different picture. The same document which outlines the total removal of arts funding boasts a £418m capital programme in the City – for the next three years alone – £79m of which comes directly from council resources. Much of this money will be spent to regenerate run down commercial areas of the city in the hope of encouraging new businesses, ironically, in the retail and ‘leisure’ sector. Apparently the Council find it perfectly fine to use council money to pay the admin staff of developers, builders, retailers in the commercial sector but not the admin staff, cleaners, accountants and caretakers of already thriving cultural businesses in the public sector. There’s even an astonishing £1.2m ear-marked for “capital funding to enable council buildings to be incentivized to bid for asset transfer opportunities.” i.e. doing them up to flog them to the private sector. Even the overall deficit starts to look problematic when you examine the detail. The actual fall in revenue from central government is £39m but the figures pump this up to the £90m by estimating £21.7m for inflation and nearly another £30m for some other vague intangibles. The “cost of the downturn” is reckoned to be more than the entire arts budget for the whole three years. I smell sophistry.
    The Council’s defence will inevitably be that there is a difference in Revenue and Capital spend but as anybody knows most of any Capital spend goes on wages. Indeed the report boasts about the fact that this capital spend will help jobs in the construction industry yet at the very same time outlines the plans to lay off librarians and ordinary admin staff who work in theatres and museums. Quite clearly there is money to continue funding the libraries, museums and the Arts. Live Theatre’s grant of £89,000 per year is 0.06% of this discretionary capital spend for the same period. The entire Arts budget is 0.38 % percent of this capital spend and only 0.7% of the general council budget. It directly supports hundreds of jobs but also brings business for restaurants, bars and hotels in the City. Yet the Council is happy to wage a nuclear attack and wipe out all Arts funding, not even trying to strategically protect a single institution.
    This is a straightforward attack on the Arts buried underneath a load of smoke and mirrors about austerity. They can’t have it both ways. It is simply fiscally dishonest and illiterate not to count the economic value of the cultural businesses in Newcastle. Whenever I have a sell-out show the restaurants around the theatre are also full. You would think a vibrant cultural life is vitally important to attract the high fliers the council are trying to attract to the area, let alone to provide succour to the tax payers of the City. These plans outline the transfer of an enormous amount of public money to the private sector. This is not the simple fiscal crisis the Council are claiming it to be. Something is wrong. Look at the figures. It just does not add up.”

  9. R Winward permalink
    November 24, 2012 10:30 pm

    Spending on creating new businesses (i.e. jobs) makes sense to me. If people don’t have jobs they cannot afford to go to theatres or restaurants! When all those thousands of council workers in the north east lose their jobs they will not be at the theatre or eating out any longer unless there are alternative jobs for them. So to save the cultural life you need to create new jobs. How that is done may be open to question but it is vital that it is done.

    • Amanda permalink
      November 25, 2012 11:19 am

      What you fail to understand is that the culture sector in the North East HAS been creating lots of jobs in the region, not just entertaining people, that it has been responsible for a great part of its socio-economical regeneration, and that these cuts will not only render all these culture workers unemployed but also result in a huge loss of profit for the tourism and restaurant sectors of the region, which also employ a lot of people, which will also loose their job because of these cuts. Besides, tax money are meant to be used for things that the general public has a use for, such as for instance public libraries and culture at an affordable cost for all. The council has a moral and legal obligation to make sure these are funded. That’s part of what we mandate them for. They are supposed to work for us, the people of Newcastle, and we have a say in how we want the city budget to be used. The very fact that they lie to us about needing to cut the arts in order to “protect the vulnerable” – an obvious lie given how the actual budget looks in reality and that the cuts they are making WILL affect the most vulnerable of us – shows that they have no respect for us, the very people they are supposed to work for. I don’t know about you, but I want all of the people responsible for these scandalous cuts to be fired.

  10. Catherine permalink
    November 26, 2012 9:40 am

    A three mile round trip with preschool children to a “local library” isn’t exactly local, unless you have a company car or course.

  11. Lynne Henry permalink
    November 27, 2012 4:52 pm

    The proposed closure of Moorside Library is particularly worrying. This library is inside Moorside School and shares resources with the school.
    It is a very inexpensive library to run as it is actually inside Moorside School and is the School’s own library!
    Elderly people, disabled people and children will face particular problems accessing other libraries as they would have to either cross the West Road or go into the town centre. Many children use the library to do their homework and use the computers.
    Moorside Library runs activities for children during the holidays.
    Moorside Library is right in the heart of Mr Forbes Westgate Ward and surrounded by the very deprived Arthur’s Hill Terraces and New Mills Estate. It is not about keeping Culture or Arts in Moorside Library, it s about ensuring the survival of of a valuable social resource. There are no other public community buildings in this area.

  12. Judy Dixey permalink
    November 30, 2012 2:07 pm

    Nick and all the respondents should take a peek at a current report from San Francisco and the contribution its spend on arts and culture makes to the economy there – at this link http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/blog/2012/11/arts-contributed-710m-to-san-francisco.html
    It really does highlight how the cut – devastating to your cultural economy, and SO small in terms of the total budget in terms of deficit reduction – is deleterious in MANY more ways than you anticipate.
    Really important to THINK AGAIN!

  13. September 4, 2013 9:42 pm

    It’s an remarkable paragraph in support of all the internet users; they will get benefit from it I am sure.

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