It all made for grim reading on Saturday. More regional museums and heritage sites in the North of England are facing closure as George Osborne’s austerity policy forces local councils to cut their spending.
A report in The Independent’s i weekend edition, Saturday 12th March, focussed on the increasingly desperate situation in Lancashire where the county’s last surviving textile mill at Helmshore is in serious jeopardy from a council needing to cut £65m in two years. The report situated this potential loss of a key cultural site in the wider context of continued cuts and likely closures across the North.
In the words of Alistair Brown, policy officer at the Museums Association, the pressure on councils in the North of England to make cuts by closing museums and heritage sites means that ‘whole areas may turn into cultural deserts’. In addition to Lancashire, the i’s report identifies West Yorkshire and Durham amongst those other areas in which museums are at severe risk.
On the same morning as i hit newsstands, the BBC News channel devoted a lengthy segment to Coventry’s bid to become UK City of Culture, a title bestowed every four years, for 2021. This title is estimated by the BBC to be worth around £80m to the chosen city. In the BBC segment local artists expressed their concern that the younger generation who have grown up in Coventry are compelled to move South to realise their creative ambitions; becoming UK City of Culture for 2021 would, they argued, help retain those young creatives and revitalise the area.
The number of UK cities in need of this injection of cash and prestige is only likely to grow as councils are forced to continue cutting their spending on arts and heritage. George Osborne has pledged to increase funding to Arts Council England and to national museums and galleries, but this line of policy smacks of centralising culture, of privileging flagship institutions overwhelmingly in (or near) London whilst doing little to protect the spending on regional sites.
In this context, the competition for UK City of Culture (administered by The Department of Culture, Media and Sport) seems like a paltry act of appeasement – revitalising one city every four years to the tune of £80m whilst enforcing brutal budget cuts on culture elsewhere. It also pales in comparison to the kind of money that EU initiatives can offer; when Liverpool held the status of European City of Culture in 2008, it reportedly generated £753.8m for the local economy. The benefits to the arts and heritage sectors need to be brought to the fore in the current debate on the UK’s membership of the EU.
With Brexit continuing to dominate the headlines, Friday morning saw the live televised debut of Boris Johnson at the battle lines. Speaking at a freight company in Dartford on Friday, Boris soon turned on his mayoral bombast to proclaim London as the world’s greatest city. This is a mayor who has presided over a period in which record numbers of live music venues have closed as property developers tighten their stranglehold over London land whilst forcing young creative people out into the (still woefully overpriced) margins of the city. Considering the economic value of cultural tourism to London, it’s difficult to know who will be producing this culture in the future.
Nevertheless, the South-East of England – largely treated as simply an ever-expanding commuter belt servicing the capital – and in particular London seem to be more protected from arts and heritage cuts when compared to the rest of the UK. Conservative politicians have little idea as to how they can support creative young people and stimulate cultural production on a smaller or regional level, but they can throw money at big institutions and flagship projects.
The question of whether or not to remain in the EU has massive implications for arts spending, cultural regeneration, and research budgets. Invoking the argument that Brexit would restore full democratic powers to Britain is all very well, but who would artists, scholars, and heritage workers rather have leading policy, introducing initiatives, and bolstering budgets: EU bodies with a mandate for cultural development and exchange, or a government deeming regional culture outside of London as mere kindling to be thrown on the austerity bonfire? Ω