Beware philistines making false economies

SOMETIMES it feels as if those of us who value our cultural heritage and the vibrant contemporary arts scene in our region live in a parallel universe separated by a vast black hole from the people who sit in council chambers.

Over the past few years we have seen the dismantling of a once-successful network of tourist information centres, the wholesale closure of libraries and drastic cuts in arts funding. It is, as the actors’ union Equity says, “cultural vandalism.”

Somerset County Council was (shamefully) proud of becoming the first local authority to withdraw all arts funding, a feat that has now been copied by other councils.

Bristol City Council is cutting 20 per cent from its arts funding in 2018-19 and a similar amount in 2020-21. This, don’t forget, is the city that is home to arguably the country’s most diverse and exciting arts scene, from Bristol Old Vic and the Tobacco Factory to the Slapstick Festival, Bristol Ferment and countless musicians and music venues.

Bath and North East Somerset – living ever more closely up to its grim acronym (BANES) – is cutting its grants for the arts with immediate effect (with a worrying impact on the Rondo Theatre and Bath Fringe Festival among others). The council is also about to close its early 21st century purpose-built Central Library, planning to move it to office space in Manvers Street where, say the save-our-library campaigners there will be “less or no books, less staff, less services, less study, display and meeting space.” Smaller BANES libraries are to be closed.

It is true that councils face reduced government grants and council tax-payers who complain at any increase (while also objecting to cuts in services). So they have cut back on any service that is “non-statutory” – these include libraries, youth centres, leisure facilities, tourist information, public conveniences and the arts.

One of these services is surely essential – public conveniences should be recognised as a necessity; it is ridiculous to expect that cafes, pubs and shops should provide them, other than for their own customers. And several of the others on the list, including tourist information centres and theatres, generate far more income than they cost.

West Dorset is a tourist destination, but it is in the process of disposing of or moving its TICs. Dorchester will shortly move into smaller and less central premises at the grandiose new Charles Street development. Nobody knows how many of the range of services currently provided by the expert staff in the Trinity Street tourist office will continue. Sherborne’s much-loved TIC is under threat as is the office in Lyme Regis.

In North Dorset, the cash-strapped district council stopped running the tourist offices some years ago, and the service is run by volunteers or with one paid manager at Blandford and at Shaftesbury.

East Devon has unbelievably closed the TIC at Honiton, the gateway to the West Country, and possibly the best tourist centre of them all. We cannot be the only people who regularly used it, and now have no reason to stop in the town, where we would previously have had coffee and cake or lunch and done some shopping.

Those who favour these short-term cost savings will tell you that people can find all the information they need on-line but it is no more true than that satnavs are a complete replacement for maps. These digital services can only tell you what you know you want to know. It is the serendipity of following a curious twisting road on a map or listening to the local knowledge of a tourism adviser that offers something different and makes your visit that much more enjoyable and rewarding.

I never thought I would quote George Osborne, but in his 2015 Spending Review, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke of the value of the arts and culture. He said that £1bn in Department of Culture, Media and Sport funding generated £250bn for the economy, making arts and culture among “the best investments we can make”.

He went on to say: “Deep cuts in the small budget of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport are a false economy.”

We need to remind our councillors of this fact every time they try to make another ill-judged cut. Cultural vandalism is worse than criminal vandalism, which can usually be patched up, and the offender punished.

Fanny Charles