100% is too much

COMMENT: The arts have to take their fair share of cuts along with everyone else – but the 100% proposed by Newcastle City Council is going way too far.

At the moment, everybody who’s anybody is sticking their oar in to protest against the proposed 100% cut to Newcastle City Council’s arts budget. This is gone way beyond a local campaign, and has been grabbing the attention of national media and national celebrities. I’m not really one for leaping on to bandwagons, but on this occasion I have to say I am in broad agreement with – well, pretty much everyone else.

I will begin with the best possible argument I can make in favour of a cut to the arts budget: I have reservations over lavish public funding of theatres. There are several reasons why you might want to subsidise theatres: allow theatres to take on a wider variety of work, allow people on lower incomes the chance to see the theatre, give a chance for local writers/directors/actors to make their début on the stage, provide inspiration to local people, and more. But do it badly, and you can achieve none of these. Public accountability of where arts subsidies go has never been great, and if you’re not careful you can end up with a clique using their subsidy to impose their tastes on the local community – using the same writers, actors and directors – regardless of what the local community wants. When you get to that stage, a smaller subsidy can at least force you to consider what your audience might actually want to see.

Of course, this argument doesn’t hold quite so true for dance or music. Very effective theatre can be done cheaply, but it’s hard to imagine a bargain basement version of The Nutcracker being the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Nor does that solve the problem of what might happen to places like Seven Stories. And assuming that theatre will suddenly pick up the pieces with no subsidy is highly reckless. So why a full 100% cut?

The answer, says Nicks Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council, is that they have no choice – it’s the Coalition cuts that force them to do it. To some extent, he’s got a point. Firstly, there’s the question on whether cuts this wide are necessary. I’m not going to go into this because this has been debated extensively elsewhere and anyone who’s likely to have an opinion has already made up their mind. Secondly, local government is taking more than its fair share of cuts, which some cynics may suggest is because central government can let local government take the rap for difficult choices.

Thirdly – and most contentious – there is the argument that poorer Labour-supporting local authorities are taking far more of the cuts than affluent areas. Frankly, I lost the will to live trying to work out if this is the case. One of the reforms made to local government spending was to change the staggeringly complicated system of funding from different pools into something simpler, which has been achieved, but the change from the old system to the new one has been incredibly haphazard. Whatever the motivation, Newcastle City Council agues it’s suffered the 24th most severe cuts out of 326 local authorities.

However, that excuse isn’t good enough for one simple reason: they’re not the only local authority in this position. By Newcastle’s own figures, there’s 23 other councils in a worse situation than them and – with the possible exception of Westminster City Council – none of them are claiming they’re being forced into a 100% arts budget cut. In addition, I am far from convinced cuts on this scale at the Council are necessary at all. Newcastle City Council had a 7.8% cut in 2011-2012 and a 3.8% cut in 2012-2013, and life went on. As far as I can tell, the budget cut for 2013-2014 is 1.5%, so why it is suddenly so urgent to inflict such drastic cuts on the city? Nick Forbes is furious that Coalition ministers are suggesting authorities like his are deliberately inflicting the must damaging cuts to try to make the government look bad. I’m afraid he has not done enough to convince me otherwise.

Contrast this with the behaviour of the Newcastle theatres, and their behaviour has been admirably restrained. Most opposition I have seen to cuts of specific services usually involves cutting something else, taxing someone else, or sticking more paper in the money-printing machine. They are all unanimous in accepting that they need to take their fair share of cuts along with everyone else – just that 100% is more than a fair share. Newcastle Theatre Royal is even honest enough to admit that it could probably manage without the subsidy if necessary, whilst still standing up in support of its smaller competitors. This opposition in not the work of a clique of luvvies demanding they keep their public money, just a perfectly reasonable question of why they’re being singled out this way.

Now, it might be that what I’ve described is too simplistic. Perhaps, when I am talked through all the figures and all the priorities, I might agree that there’s no choice but to make these cuts. But the current explanation they are offering doesn’t cut it. At the very least, they are going to have to explain how their cuts compare to the 23 other councils facing worse cuts. Or they could at least explore the option of sharing the burden with the other Tyne and Wear Boroughs. To be fair, this is only a proposal up for consultation, but all too often public bodies have no intention of budging irrespective of public reaction. Or they deliberately propose over-the-top cuts to later water it down to some not-quite-so-ridiculous cuts.

I really hope the Newcastle arts scene isn’t going to be savaged in order to score political points. It’s up to Newcastle City Council to prove otherwise.

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