Saving Somerset Against Arts Cuts

It’s very rare that my neck of the woods makes national news, and even rarer for it to be arts-related, but the news last year of the 100% cut to Somerset’s arts funding has sent ripples through the arts world and even reached national headlines. Fast forward to now and it’s encouraging to see how strongly we’re holding on and how determinedly we are fighting. On Wednesday 16th February, Ralph Lister of Take Arts handed over a petition of over 7,300 people from Somerset alone, who all opposed the cuts. The turnout was fantastic and meant that many had to view the meeting via a video link in an overflow room. I attended the County Council meeting and this is what I heard:

After debates about road conditions, recycling and so on, it was finally the moment we had been waiting for: the Save Somerset Arts Petition handover. Ralph Lister presented the Chairman with the list of signatures and messages and gave a three minute speech in defence of our much-needed funding, which was greeted by cheers and clapping from many in the chamber, as well as those in the overflow room with me. The council was then given five minutes to respond to the subject presented to them. While the response left much to be desired it did at least explain a few things; Somerset’s arts funding is only being cut by 50%, but the remaining 50% is to be put under the heading of Creative Industries. If, like me, this gives you a moment of hope, you may find the full implications quite disappointing. As Ralph pointed out in his opening speech, this leaves the funding open to anyone who uses any form of media (including marketing and advertising). When there’s little funding available it will inevitably go to projects that are able to turn it into financial gain as opposed to social gain. Would the arts be able to compete with this? Who knows. So, not really ‘only’ 50% after all.

Other than the expected responses of “in hard financial times we must make difficult decisions” and “we want to give a helping hand”, the above was the council’s only argument. After just half of their allocated response time they resumed their seats. The meeting then turned to the Member Debate, opening a floodgate of questions and arguments – which was fantastic. This being my first visit to a County Council meeting I’d not seen such a passionate, intelligent and well-structured formal debate in defence of our sector before. The main concerns raised were: the domino effect on other avenues of funding; the consequences that cuts will have for children and schools; and whether or not there had been sufficient consultation before the decision had been made.

There is a real concern that by refusing direct and specified funding for the arts sector we will be risking potential funding from other investors. One Member suggested that the Council’s attitude could well lead investors to ask, “If your own Council can’t be bothered [to fund you], why on earth should we?” While we could argue that investors may take pity on us and dash to our rescue, the reality is that if we are singularly dependent on one means of funding we are more likely to struggle and therefore present ourselves as a high risk investment. Given the current financial climate, investors are probably not going to be keen to gamble their funding. There is also the question of the domino effect on other councils – will they too think this is a marvellous way of achieving those much prized savings we keep hearing about? Barnet is another area that has already made a similar decision, arguing that residents’ proximity to central London means that it perhaps won’t have as dramatic an affect as Somerset’s decision.

Without proper access to funding there will be fewer opportunities for children and schools to have contact with professional and, here’s the biggest emphasis, local artists. While those supporting the cuts merely shrug off the impact by implying that amateur companies can take up the slack and fill the void, this just isn’t good enough. Members and protesters argued that it is important to be aware that for the arts to have a beneficial impact they need to be conducted by experienced professionals, and this requires appropriate funding. Also, while it may be possible for national touring companies to fill this void, it is important to encourage growth in local arts activity. This is an important factor in concentrating on where funding goes.

The biggest reaction of the debate was provoked by one member asking whether or not UN Convention B166 had been adhered to when making decisions regarding the arts. This states, “Respect for the views of the child. When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think and have their opinions taken into account.” For further details of this, visit http://www.unicef.org/crc/files/Rights_overview.pdf When asked whether or not this had been adhered to, the chamber went rather quiet, prompting much laughter and clapping from the overflow room. After a few moments, while the Chairman stopped the clock and called for someone to answer, the councillor who was able to respond apologised for not paying attention (he had been drafting a reply to a later argument) and asked for a repeat of the question. He then confirmed that the matter had been presented to the Youth Parliament amongst other decisions for their consideration. Members called to be shown the minutes of these meetings.

When it comes to the arts sector, we have a strong standpoint, but I worry that in a climate in which the focus is on financial outcomes, social benefits could well be relegated to by-products of economic plans. I also worry whether our championing of social benefits will be all too easily dismissed for the sake of ease when making financial decisions. The attitude of many of the ruling individuals in the council meeting demonstrated to me how little time and attention they are willing to give the matter. I sincerely hope I am mistaken.

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