An artistic Autumn Statement


“The cultural life of the North will get a boost,” George Osborne trumpeted in the Autumn Statement, “including a major new theatre space in Manchester. Manchester City Council propose to call it The Factory Manchester. Anyone who’s a child of the 80s will think that’s a great idea.”

But as Osborne seeks to kick start his northern powerhouse, how important are the arts to economic regeneration?

“In Germany or the USA,” notes John Kampfner, chair of the Turner Contemporary in Margate, in Create published by the Arts Council, “having an international arts destination based outside the capital or one of the biggest cities would not be noteworthy. In Britain, it marks a radical departure”. I’ve visited the Turner Contemporary every year since its opening in 2011 and on each visit I’ve discovered new shops and eateries geared to gallery visitors. “The phenomenon is not unique to Margate,” continues Kampfner. “From Nottingham Contemporary to the Baltic in Gateshead, to our ‘sister’ gallery, the Hepworth in Wakefield, the UK has a cluster of independent galleries with international reputations.”

While ‘the Margate model’ is not unique to Margate, the case for arts-led regeneration still needs to convince some. The presence of the Baltic has not stopped Newcastle City Council toying with a 100 per cent cut to arts funding. Councils increasingly feel themselves to be facing a choice between draconian measures and maintaining essential services. As one Birmingham councillor recently told the Chamberlain Files blog: “If it’s going to amount to a choice between children’s centres and nurseries for disadvantaged children and the very expensive Library of Birmingham, I known what I would prioritise. And it’s not the library.”

Osborne offers no relief to the difficulty of the choices facing councillors. Under published Conservative plans, the Resolution Foundation “estimate that several government departments would face real-terms budget reductions of one-half or more between 2010-11 and 2018-19”. Budgets for DfID, the NHS and schools are nominally ring fenced, so other departments, including local government, face a halving of their budgets.

Will Hutton called the Library of Birmingham “the last hurrah for local pride before civic Britain is culled” last year. As much as Osborne might wish The Factory Manchester to be another beacon of local pride, in a context of deep cuts to local authority budgets, it risks being a lonely one. Even the Library of Birmingham, less than two years after its opening, is reported as facing reduced opening hours and job losses. The hurrah may reduce to a whimper, which hardly seems the best way to maximise the return from the investment of £187 million in building the Library.

Some – including Liam Byrne, a Birmingham MP – see more local control of Arts Council funding as a means of protecting arts and cultural institutions. But local control of funding may only amount to ‘cost shunting’ – moving costs from one part of government to another – if it occurs amid an overall fiscal envelope as constrained as Osborne promises. Local control may also be unnecessary to feel the full economic impact of these institutions. What may be more important is integration of these institutions into local economic and transport strategies: making them easily accessible to as many potential visitors as possible and ensuring that local people receive the training required to work for them. For example, when I appeared on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year to discuss the Demos report Up to the Job, I was interviewed alongside a recently recruited apprentice from the Everyman theatre in Liverpool.

Recruitment of this kind helps the government fulfill its ambitions on both the arts and apprenticeships. But these ambitions risk running ahead of available means within Osborne’s fiscal settlement. These issues – apprenticeships and the arts – straddle the liberal metropolitan and blue collar Tory interests that Rafael Behr argues in the Guardian that Osborne aims to bridge. If policy in these areas disappoints due to lack of resources, Osborne’s project of ideological unification would be hoisted on the petard of his futile focus upon deficit elimination. New dawn would fade, to paraphrase one of the first songs released by Factory Records.