Local cuts are a disease turning into an epidemic
8 February 2017
In some ways, the current rash of local arts funding cuts started in the South West. In 2010, Somerset County Council removed funding to all cultural organisations. It was, if you like, the canary in the mine for the current local arts funding crisis. Or – to continue the infection metaphor – Somerset was ‘patient zero’ for a disease that would soon engulf many other councils, spreading to Birmingham, Newcastle and even central London, when Westminster announced it would cut all arts funding in 2013.
Somerset’s cuts were blamed when the Taunton Brewhouse went into administration in 2013. Banners outside the venue read: “100% cuts – this is what you get.” The Brewhouse has since reopened, but it seems that lessons have not been learnt by neighbouring authorities: the recent closure of two theatres in north Devon is rooted in funding cuts by North Devon Council.
Now, Bath and North East Somerset Council is proposing a 100% cut to the grants it awards to arts organisations, while Bristol City Council has outlined a proposed 40% cut to its arts budget, with £190,000 to be cut in 2018/19 and a further £190,000 in 2021.
When it comes to theatre, the South West has often been considered to be one of the less well-served regions of the UK, but Bath and Bristol have been two of the shining exceptions. Their position is now under threat.
Local authorities used to regard the provision of culture activities as a crucial part of their remit, but, as one council cuts, it becomes that much easier for another – especially a neighbouring council – to renege on its responsibility. So, the cuts spread from one authority to the next until a whole area is left as a cultural wasteland.
The flip side of all of this is that good practice can also breed good practice. It’s crucial that we celebrate enlightened councils that continue to support the arts despite dwindling resources, if for no other reason than that it will encourage neighbouring authorities to follow suit. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ is a psychology that works for councils as much as individuals.