Newcastle council’s plan to axe its funding of all arts organisations in the city is symptomatic of the “invidious choices” that will confront other local authorities over the next few years, said its embattled leader.
Nick Forbes, the city’s Labour leader, said the tough choices were a taste of things to come. “I would be astounded if the painful and difficult decisions Newcastle is facing over the next three years won’t be faced by other councils,” he said.
For many local authorities, arts funding cuts are a painful but essential way of squaring the 28 per cent reduction they face in central government grant over the four years to 2015. This is because the arts – along with libraries and leisure centres – is one of the spending areas over which they have a modicum of control. Adult social care, refuse collection and road maintenance are among the services they are obliged to maintain.
Mr Forbes said: “All councils are facing invidious choices between statutory legal services for vulnerable people and other services which, we know, provide quality of life but which we aren’t legally mandated to provide.”
The problem is set to worsen as an ageing population pushes up the bill for adult social care. Flick Rea, who chairs the Local Government Association’s culture, tourism and sport board, said: “On current projections, the rising cost of adult social care, combined with falling local government funding, means that by 2020 the money available for all other services will have fallen by 60 per cent.”
While Newcastle’s proposals lie at the extreme end of a spectrum of council proposals, belts are tightening everywhere. Richard Russell, director of strategy at Arts Council England, said: “This is happening in every type of authority, in every part of the country, in local authorities of every political persuasion.”
Roddy Gauld, chief executive of the Bolton Octagon, the place that ignited film director Danny Boyle’s love of theatre when he worked there as an usher, said he feared a return of the deep cuts of the 1980s and 1990s. “The theatre nearly closed in 2000. It was saved by public donations. We are genuinely worried about where we will be in two years’ time if things don’t change,” he said.
Funding from its local authority was frozen in 2009 and the Octagon will incur its first loss since 2000 this year, despite shedding its education co-ordinator and dropping one production a year. The average ticket price is £11 and it pulls in 80,000 customers a year.
Mr Gauld did not think Bolton would cut all its funding. “They know how important the arts are to a community like Bolton. We will work with every primary school this year.”
Arts Council England, a key source of funding alongside councils, corporate sponsorship, generated revenues and the lottery, lost just under 30 per cent of its grant-in-aid funding in the spending review, and will lose another 1 and 2 per cent in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Another spending review planned for next year could bring further cuts.
Mr Russell said the body would have to review its contributions to arts organisations that lost local council funding, adding: “It may mean we can no longer support an organisation because the work it’s able to do no longer meets our expectations of what a funded group should do. In other cases, it might mean our funding becomes even more important.”
Opera North, the Leeds-based company, has lost about £1.5m, or 13 per cent, of its Arts Council funding, and a £250,000 West Yorkshire combined council grant. It has replaced permanent staff with short-term contractors and scaled back touring. It has made up half the loss in increased donations, but said that local companies were also suffering in the recession.