'Looming disaster': theatre leaders call for urgent action to stem local funding cuts
Cuts to arts funding by local councils across England are a "looming disaster" for cultural organisations and venues, with industry leaders warning of "long-term damage" to the theatre landscape.
The warnings come as it was announced that Suffolk County Council is proposing to completely cut its £500,000 arts funding – with venues and arts companies in the region warning of the dire impact the budget reduction will have, particularly around outreach and community engagement work.
This latest development is set against a backdrop of declining funding to the arts from local councils across England, with theatres and cultural organisations in areas such as Hampshire, Woking, Bristol, Nottingham and Birmingham also facing cuts. Hampshire County Council recently announced plans to shave £600,000 off its arts funding in the region, while in Nottingham, the city council is also planning to cut its entire cultural budget after announcing bankruptcy.
Jack Gamble, director of Campaign for the Arts, said that, in real terms, English councils had almost halved their cultural investment since 2010.
"The funding crisis in local government is a looming disaster for UK arts and culture. Taken together, local authorities are the biggest public funders of the arts – but proposals to cut local arts funding are sweeping the nation," he said.
He added: "More and more organisations are learning that their council’s investment is collapsing or entirely disappearing, as local authorities of all political stripes buckle under cost and demand pressures. It’s deeply alarming to see the number and scale of the cuts being proposed. Every new threat to local public investment is a threat to all of this."
Douglas Rintoul, chief executive of the New Wolsey, said the Ipswich theatre was currently in receipt of £122,000 each year from the county council and that the decision to cease its four-decade-long commitment to investing in cultural institutions raised "profound concerns".
"The abrupt withdrawal of support of core investment, amounting to a mere 0.057% of the council’s current revenue budget, reflects a disheartening lack of informed consideration. It disregards the mounting evidence showcasing the arts as a strategic ally in saving costs within the health service and social care," he said.
Rintoul also warned that the move sets "a precarious precedent for other councils, potentially reversing decades of progress and advocacy that was fostering positive, interconnected thinking to address the significant challenges faced by our communities".
"The decision reeks of contemporary short-termism, neglecting the long-term damage it could inflict on the cultural fabric of our shared society," he said in a statement to The Stage, urging councils to "acknowledge the vital role cultural institutions play in helping political leaders deliver for their communities, even amid fiscal challenges".
UK Theatre joint president Stephanie Sirr, who is also chief executive of Nottingham Playhouse, said the role of local authorities in supporting their "stakeholders to have a cultural life has been woefully eroded over the past decade".
"It makes no sense to risk something that delivers on virtually every outcome that any local authority would wish for its community: quality of life, social cohesion, literacy, oracy, inclusion, good mental health, access and absolutely vast economic impact.
"Acknowledgement of what is really at stake, followed by a robust plan for redressing the imbalance, is needed, urgently. The sums involved are already very modest compared with the investment of the past but they are desperately needed," she said, adding that UK Theatre was "working to thoroughly assess the scale of this issue and providing support to our members during these uncertain times".
Chris Stafford, chief executive of Curve in Leicester, said the pressure local councils were under should not be underestimated, but warned that "cuts to spend on the arts, at a time when many organisations are grappling with an increase in costs across the board, will have far-reaching consequences and will significantly impact on the breadth and depth of the cultural provision across the country".
He added: "We also know investment in the arts makes good business sense, and a reduction in the local cultural offer – which makes up a very small percentage of total local government spend – will have a wider economic knock-on for the many businesses that depend on the footfall from artistic programming."
The Local Government Association, which works with councils to promote local government, said councils were "facing ongoing cost and demand pressures" that meant they were dealing with a funding gap of almost £4 billion over the next two years.
Research from the LGA at the end of last year warned of more councils effectively declaring themselves bankrupt in the near future, with almost one in five council leaders indicating this would be the case.
Following the financial settlement for local government in December, the LGA described it as "unthinkable" that the government had not offered further "desperately needed new funding for local services".
A spokesperson for the LGA told The Stage: “Due to these pressures, councils increasingly have to allocate a higher percentage of their budget towards services such as homelessness, children’s services and social care, which has increased as a percentage of median council budgets by 6.5% from 2016/17."
"This means that councils find themselves unable to fund discretionary services as they would like to," the spokesperson said, but added: "While many councils are working proactively with each other to share, transform and deliver high-quality services, they need adequate long-term funding to support all valued community services.”
Meanwhile, an Arts Council England spokesperson described local investment in culture as "vital".
"We will work with local authorities to support continued investment in the cultural sector. Arts Council England is not in a position to fill funding gaps, but we will work closely with funded organisations who are facing financial challenges and be as flexible as we can be in the way they deliver their Arts Council funding agreements," the spokesperson added.