The cultural price of austerity

THE arts, heritage and cultural sector generates a vast income for UK inc. The value of the creative industries – which include film-making and games design, both areas in which Bournemouth University and AUB (Arts University Bournemouth) excel – is worth a staggering £9.6 million per hour.

That is £84,100,000,000 per annum. Read it again, because it is too big a figure for most people on modest means to contemplate. It may be chicken feed to Donald Trump or the Qatar Sovereign Fund but it is a huge sum for a small country struggling with post-recession austerity and the challenges of Brexit.

A report published on the Gov.UK website* in January showed that the UK’s creative industries grew by 8.9 per cent in 2014, a rate that was almost double the UK economy as a whole. The figures were hailed, rightly, as a major success story by the then Culture Minister Ed Vaizey.

As an aside, have you noticed how you can never remember who the Culture Secretary/Minister is, let alone who his/her predecessor was. Just to be helpful, the Culture Secretary, since July, is Karen Bradley, and the Culture Minister is Matt Hancock. (No, I hadn’t either).

The government website gushed: “British films, music, video games, crafts and publishing are taking a lead role in driving the UK’s economic recovery, according to the latest Government statistics.”

Mr Vaizey is quoted as saying: “The creative industries are one of the UK’s greatest success stories, with British musicians, artists, fashion brands and films immediately recognisable in nations across the globe. Our Creative Industries [his capital letters, not mine] are well and truly thriving and we are determined to ensure its [sic] continued growth and success.

“Government continues to create the right environment for creative industries to thrive, through tax reliefs, inward investment, and safeguarding music and cultural education programmes.”

So that’s all right then, Theatres and galleries and dance companies and film-makers and video games designers and tourism promoters and libraries and event organisers and everyone involved in this vast profitable sector can heave a sign of relief. They are on your side.

You might think that this would be a major consideration for our local political leaders. You would expect them to embrace this sector and do everything within their limited means to support it.

And you would be so wrong.

Just here in Somerset, a few years ago, I was one of the journalists who sat in the press box at County Hall in Taunton to watch the glee and pride with which a majority of councillors voted to withdraw funding from the arts, becoming the first county council in England to take this step.

The first, but quickly followed by many more. The Telegraph (which should be praised for its wide-ranging arts coverage and comment) reported last week that since 2010 funding for museums, libraries and leisure centres has fallen by almost a third. Overall expenditure on cultural services in England has fallen by more than £1 billion in that period and cuts averaging 29 per cent have been made to budgets for cultural services, including community centres and theatres. (The arts are not alone – the report also cites a shameful 40 per cent cut in housing budgets, including support for the homeless, and a reduction of nearly 30 per cent in transport services).

But we shouldn’t get too gloomy, because the truth is that often adversity encourages creativity. You don’t have to look back to the amazing writing and exciting music that came out of dissident voices in the old Soviet-dominated eastern bloc –  just look at Somerset.

The Brewhouse at Taunton survived financial collapse to return with a slimmed-down staff but a wide programme for all tastes.

Strode Theatre at Street continues not only to provide the best world cinema programme in the county but a wonderful theatre for local amateurs and popular live-by-satellite dance, opera and exhibition screenings.

In Frome, the Merlin theatre still has an adventurous programme – from Mark Bruce Dance Company premiering new work to cutting edge satire like the upcoming Rob Gee gig (see Comedy); and Black Swan visual arts centre continues to put on high quality exhibitions.

But let’s be clear. These survivals are in no way indebted to elected representatives. They are a tribute to their dedicated staff, working for peanuts, to armies of volunteers, to artists who continue to come to venues on terms that no ordinary business would contemplate, and to a creative energy that cannot be destroyed by bureaucracy.

Fanny Charles