Arts and culture cuts explained
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