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Arts and culture budget at risk as Birmingham council enters ‘cuts end game’

Arts and culture budget at risk as Birmingham council enters ‘cuts end game’

🕔23.Oct 2014

Birmingham council’s desperate search for £800 million of savings has entered the end game.

City leaders are now considering cutting spending on non-statutory provision including arts and culture and children’s centres. Chief blogger Paul Dale sets the scene for what is certain to be a fervent debate as the controlling Labour group prepare to finalise next year’s budget.

There are, of course, no easy cuts left for Birmingham city council. The low-hanging fruit has long since been picked and the authority’s budget has been cut by about £460 million since 2010.

That leaves a further £300 million to be found in order to comply with the Government’s austerity programme, which will see Birmingham’s grant funding continue to be severely reduced.

The savings figure may rise to £330 million because council leader Sir Albert Bore has given a commitment to the Government-appointed children’s commissioner Lord Warner that an additional £30 million will be found to prop up Birmingham’s failing safeguarding children’s services.

Sir Albert appears to have shifted from a position where for the past three years he has confidently predicted dismantling entire council services, to a more nuanced stance revolving around “identifying savings each year without taking out services”.

The results of service reviews have been published in a green paper – Responding to the Challenge, Looking to the Future – which sets out proposed high, medium and low priorities for spending.

Sir Albert wants a “big conversation” with the people of Birmingham, businesses and other stakeholders about the best way forward. But time is not on his side. He expects to publish detailed budget proposals for 2015-16 in December.

However, the council leader went out of his way at a media briefing to highlight what is certain to be a momentous struggle within the Labour group over the future of previously ‘untouchable’ areas of expenditure of children’s centres, nursery schools and street services.

The reverse side of this coin is arts, culture and events where most Labour councillors have in the past expressed doubts about using the public purse make such investments.

There were rowdy group meetings a year ago over the question of whether or not the council should continue to spend millions of pounds into the arts, particularly the new Library of Birmingham. Sir Albert accepted there was a “conflict” among councillors and, more widely, the people of Birmingham about the wisdom of continuing to invest in culture when money is so tight.

He said: “We will look again at the role of the Library of Birmingham and its relationship with community libraries. We have to find savings in that area. We are putting an intensive review in place to identify how best we can deliver savings in the Library of Birmingham budget, and the consequential relationship between the library and community libraries.

“The question is, how can we put in place a sustainable model for the future funding of arts, culture, museums and events?

“There are two views. One is that there are priority services that we must have ahead of arts and culture. There are others that say it is arts and culture that makes Birmingham a city of note. So we have a conflict out there.

“This is a conflict that we have to resolve. The view of the leadership of this council is that we have to find a sustainable model in order to make sure that arts, culture, museums and events are an integral part of the Birmingham offer.”

Sir Albert made it clear that he wishes to protect the arts and culture scene: “My view is we need an arts and culture contribution or the city doesn’t have the value it has built up over the past 30 years or so. The question is, how do we make these cuts whilst sustaining an arts and culture programme for the city?”

Deputy council leader Ian Ward pointed to the recently refurbished mac birmingham whose chief executive Dorothy Wilson has said she expects eventually to lose all council subsidies and that the organisation must look for other ways of balancing the books.

Cllr Ward promised that the current two-year funding agreement for arts organisations, due to expire in 2016, would be honoured.

Birmingham’s leading arts organisations, represented by Birmingham Arts Partnership, are understood to be working closely with the Council, as well as other partners including Arts Council England, on ensuring there is a sustainable model for arts and culture in Birmingham.  The city enjoys the most diverse and highest quality cultural infrastructure outside of the capital but arts companies and venues point out that Birmingham relies on a complex funding ecology, with arts organisations highly interdependent on each other and a range of public, private and charitable funding sources along with earned revenues. As well as developing new approaches in Birmingham, BAP is campaigning for a re-balancing of national resources invested in the arts.

An area of even greater controversy for Labour councillors is Birmingham’s early start programme which focuses on helping pre-school children, particularly those from socially deprived backgrounds. This not something the council has a statutory duty to provide.

Sir Albert has set up review team to look at the future of children’s centres and nursery schools. “We have to look to see if there are savings that can be made,” he warned.

A previous attempt to reduce the number of children’s centres was thrown out by the Labour group. One backbencher forecast that any attempt by Sir Albert to return to the issue would be greeted with hostility: “Children’s centres are looked on with pride because they go to the core of what the Labour party thinks is important. It is an achievement we can point to with pride.”

Another fast-track review will look at street services and consider how the cleanliness of pavements, streets and public places can be improved while delivering budget cuts. The possibility of contracting out refuse collection and street cleaning should not be discounted.

Sir Albert said: “There will be questions asked about how we have attached high priorities to some services and not to others. That is exactly the debate we want with the communities of Birmingham.

“The question now is, how do we respond to the challenge? What is the vision for the future? How are we going to look at joint working with communities across Birmingham?”

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