A 100% cut to arts funding in Birmingham is a deathblow to the institutions that make the city vibrant. If the government’s austerian assault continues, the arts will only be accessible to the wealthy.

Library of Birmingham
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

As a child, the Library of Birmingham was my favourite place in the world. My mum, seeing my best efforts to gather up five or six books at any one time, had to enforce a strict ‘only take what you can carry’ rule. With the two books my little arms could manage I’d breeze through the hours after school or after bedtime with a torch under the covers, and race back the week after for more. When it was the heritage spaces of Birmingham that offered me my first ever paid job years later, she and I agreed it made sense.

This is only one example of the role Birmingham’s creative spaces have played in only one life. The next generation of the city’s children, however, will not be able to benefit in the way I did. Last week, Birmingham City Council announced its plans to shut 25 of 35 libraries completely, and, from 2025/6, make a 100 percent cut to the arts funding that makes institutions like Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Opera Company, B: Music — the charity that oversees Birmingham Symphony Hall and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra — and the century-old Birmingham Repertory Theatre possible. The council could make up the funding shortfall by selling off its assets even works of art from our much-loved museums could be sold to private collectors. With this comes a 21 percent rise in council tax.

Councils across the country are in crisis. Section 114 notices — the means by which Birmingham effectively declared itself bankrupt in September last year — are feared to become the fate of almost one in five councils this year or next, according to the Local Government Association (LGA). Croydon, Slough, Thurrock, Nottingham, Woking, have already been forced to bite the bullet. Birmingham’s escalating costs from an equal pay claim and issues with a new IT system, Oracle, play their part, but the underlying cause of this growing rash of financial distress across the country is clear: austerity.

As Antonia Jennings and Jon Tabbush wrote in Tribune in October, local government in England had its funding slashed by £15 billion between 2010 and 2020: a real-terms cut of 20 percent. The result is that councils are forced to reduce their provision of the services residents depend on. Analysis in the Guardian earlier this year found that between 2010-11 and 2022-23, net local government spending per person on roads and transport was cut by 40 percent in real terms, on housing by 35 percent, and on planning and development by a third.

In these circumstances, with health, social care, and education all undergoing unprecedented squeezes, arts spending is seen as the least important. The figures make that clear: the Guardian analysis found spending on cultural services had been cut by a massive 43 percent. The problem, for those who declare the arts an extravagance, is that their impact cannot be disentangled from any of the other services and benefits a local authority might seek to provide.

This is true on an economic basis. Events like the Dance Festival and Birmingham Heritage Week draw huge numbers of tourists to the UK’s second city, generating vital income. The LGA has noted that in 2019, the creative industries contributed £115.9 billion to the UK as a whole, accounting for 5.9 percent of the economy and 2.2 million jobs, as well as growing at four times the rate of other sectors.

It’s also true in a far broader sense. The same LGA report, ‘Why Invest in Local Culture?’, recorded testimonies stating that ‘Culture ‘[helps] people to identify with, understand, appreciate, engage with and feel a sense of ‘belonging’ to their place’, and that creativity is ‘a growing requirement for many occupations outside the creative/cultural sector and will be essential for problem solving, innovation and adaptation in any future job market.’ It also observed that ‘Publicly funded arts and cultural services made enormous contributions to our daily lives and wellbeing during the COVID-19 restrictions,’ and that the arts ‘have a role to play in supporting health at various levels in society, from contributing to general wellbeing across a population, to helping to prevent specific forms of ill health and providing treatment for acute health conditions.’

At a time of growing crisis in the NHS and falling life expectancy, it’s this role for the arts — in closing health inequalities — that is particularly striking. The LGA’s report recorded clear benefits from cultural programmes in the clinical treatment of conditions like dementia — the UK’s biggest killer — and depression; that those targeted towards at-risk groups were valuable in a preventative approach to mental ill health and loneliness; that good cultural infrastructure and universal provision of cultural services at a population level was beneficial to community wellbeing and promoted networked, resilient communities.

These findings demonstrate the limits of treating questions of the arts and culture, health, economics, community cohesion, and social care as if they are distinct from one another and not entirely co-dependent. Crisis and collapse in one is only likely to increase the chances of crisis and collapse in all. In forcing the shuttering – or sell-off – of accessible cultural institutions and thereby cutting off the arts to all but the wealthiest, that is exactly the future this government’s austerian assault is ushering in.

There are other options. Actors’ union Equity recently published an alternative funding plan for culture in Suffolk, after the council there also proposed a 100 percent arts funding cut. The Arts Council website hosts a list of alternative funding distributors, although the revenue to be raised from these are likely to be small compared to local government levels. Above all, calls continue to be made for more power to be placed in the hands of local authorities to control their own finances, and for Keir Starmer’s incoming Labour government to match that by increasing public spending. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves insists, in response, that her Tory-led fiscal rules are non-negotiable. Whether that position will stay tenable as more councils collapse remains to be seen.

The arts are not a panacea. But they are vital to a life different from the ones Britain’s political class currently seem to imagine for the majority of the public — lives in which we wake up in mouldy and extortionately-priced homes, spend long days at tech jobs, and then return to repeat it all, unable to afford access to whatever small number of leisure or cultural activities still exist. The arts represent the potential for something better: a world that values and stimulates curiosity, joy, and connection. Perhaps that is what the people in charge really want to avoid.

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