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Arts against the wall

STEPHEN BROWN explains how the savage cuts to Birmingham City Council’s budget mean impending cataclysm its impressive arts sector

THE country is now aware of the staggering scale of £367 million of cuts that Birmingham City Council has to make, but this hasn’t come out of nowhere.

It’s utterly savage and is the culmination of 14 years of austerity. Yes, there has been maladministration in the council’s governance and avoidable disputes with the trade unions, as well as equal pay issues which saw the council’s crown jewel buildings sold off. 

Primarily, austerity has torn over £1 billion of government funding away from Britain’s second city. No-one could properly manage 60 per cent funding cuts since 2010 with a growing population and economy.

Birmingham is a city with the youngest, most diverse population in the country making it vibrant, exciting, a place to be. A trip to Digbeth with its new bars and venues opening in an entrepreneurial youthful flourish, along with the proposed film studios, make a bold statement. 

It is also home to established leading international cultural beacons like City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB). 

It has the exceptional Ikon Gallery, Birmingham Rep, Birmingham Opera Company, FABRIC, Sampad, Ex Cathedra, Legacy Centre Of Excellence, and B:Music; all of which contribute to the cultural heartbeat of the city, drawing in visitors and tourists alike putting Brum on the map. All set to see their funding end next year.

Frankie Boyle, in a somewhat darkly comical jibe, summed it up: “Can’t wait for HS2 to be finished and jump on a super-fast futuristic train to the defunded ruins of Birmingham.”

You’d hardly think that Birmingham has a proud history in the arts on that basis, but 104 years ago the city decided to launch and fund a symphony orchestra, the CBSO. It has been continuously funded by the city ever since. As part of the £3.2 million of cuts, this proud tradition is about to come to an ignominious end.

This must be the most devastating slash-and-burn approach to culture of any city in Britain, probably Europe. What kind of place treats its cultural assets in this way? Birmingham is the answer.

Cabinet member Cllr Liz Clements emotionally said: “Arts aren’t a luxury, they are actually what make life worth living in this city.” I agree, but they are going to slash and burn anyway because it’s all about having a balanced budget. There’s nothing balanced about any of this.  

I’ve been quoted in the regional press as saying: “The council is in deep financial trouble, we all know this, but it now appears it’s dumping its own troubles onto the cultural organisations it funds, and who are the cultural heartbeat of the city.”

Yes, the city is doing this and the government is letting it happen. Speculators will be rubbing their hands with glee as they will benefit from the council’s asset fire-sale of its income streams. 

It will make it harder for the council to “balance” its books or pay back its government loan intended to bail it out. 

And what of those who depend on the jobs in the cultural sector? What’s their future going to look like? The unions who represent these workers, the Musicians Union, Equity, Bectu, and Writers Guild of Great Britain will have to deal with the fallout from this and are already planning for the likely consequences.

Job losses, real-time erosions in pay and conditions, reduced opportunities for the freelancers who form the backbone of workers in this sector. Freelancers still reeling from the impact of Covid on their incomes and careers. A cultural wasteland looms.

For years, forging a sustainable career as a musician, actor or technician in the creative industries has been difficult here and it’s a struggle to recruit and retain talent. More so since the loss of BBC and ITV studios two decades ago.

The Midlands is also the worst-funded BBC region, despite being the biggest contributor to licence fee income. London and Manchester, with better funding, opportunities, and prospects, are more alluring. These cuts will make matters worse.

It will be waves not ripples that will be felt across the country. Why would creative sector workers choose to come to Birmingham? Why would anyone?

As the regional TUC secretary Lee Barron stated: “We are supposed to be the second city, let’s act like it. We must all work together to stop these cuts and preserve our cultural identity as a city.” This is exactly what the creative sector unions will be doing.

Nevertheless, it’s got to be up to the government to recognise this crisis and step in to ringfence money to preserve our cultural offer for future generations in Birmingham, and not with loans.

A country that does not value its arts cannot call itself either civilised or cultured.

Stephen Brown is chair of TUC Midlands creative and leisure industries committee (TUC M CLIC) and Musicians Union Midlands regional organiser.

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