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Puritans v Cavaliers: Birmingham arts and culture scene at centre of council cuts battle

Puritans v Cavaliers: Birmingham arts and culture scene at centre of council cuts battle

🕔22.Nov 2014

If the past two years are anything to go by Birmingham council Labour group’s 2015-16 budget setting meetings, which begin this weekend, will be long, emotional, and ultimately result in a compromise between puritans and cavaliers, writes Paul Dale.

It has been brewing for a while, but this time the bitter clashes between those who feel slashing funding for culture and the arts is the ultimate act of barbarism and those of a more pragmatic nature who believe scarce resources must be targeted at front line services will answer a vital question: “What kind of city is Birmingham going to be in the age of austerity?”.

The council says it has to cut about £100 million during 2015-16 on top of £460 million of savings already delivered since 2010. All of the “easier” options have been taken and we are now down to stripping out non-statutory services completely, according to Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore.

Sir Albert has of course been saying this for a while. And if there is a repeat of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 budget exercises, the cuts bill will reduce dramatically as February approaches. Extra money always seems to be found from somewhere as it is discovered that contingency sums set aside for this that and the other are not needed after all and the cuts figure is reduced from cataclysmic to something that is merely very bad.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jon Hunt challenged Sir Albert at a cabinet meeting this week, claiming that the £100 million cuts forecast for next year was massively inflated because there was about £70 million “sloshing around” hidden in the accounts that could be used to shore up the budget.

Sir Albert countered by insisting that Cllr Hunt was “living in cloud cuckoo land” and warned that the £100 million cuts package could rise to £130 million if the council does not succeed in persuading the Department for Education to approve a £30 million grant to bolster Birmingham’s struggling children’s social services.

Setting the 2015-16 council budget would be “very difficult indeed”, Sir Albert warned.

And that may mean decimating budgets for subsidising Birmingham’s cultural gems such as the Town Hall, Symphony Hall, the CBSO, Birmingham Royal Ballet, the theatres and mac birmingham as well as ending funding to a number of smaller arts groups. It is understood that the city’s leading art organisations are working together as the Birmingham Arts Partnership to develop a sustainable long term model for funding culture as well as underlining the significant role they play beyond their own venues across Birmingham’s communities and in education.

Sir Albert fired a warning shot last month when he published a budget consultation paper: “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.”

Particular attention is being focused on the new Library of Birmingham. The £187 million building in Centenary Square was delivered on time and on budget in a blaze of glory in 2012 by the city’s former Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. However, it has since become clear that accurate running costs were not factored in leaving a substantial loss to the council if the library continues to open for seven days a week.

There are also concerns about Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery which faces financial and wider challenges following its transfer to an independent trust.

Service reviews established by Sir Albert to examine every line of council spending clearly did not come up with the kind of radical answers the council leader was looking for. Last month he announced six additional ‘task and finish’ reviews looking at the following areas; street services; housing; the Library of Birmingham and community libraries; arts, culture, museums and events; early years, children’s centres and nursery schools; European funding opportunities.

The results of these reviews will feed into Labour’s budget making process over the next fortnight and are expected to tee up a titanic struggle over ‘line in the sand’ issues of children’s centres, nursery schools, street services and community libraries.

These areas, sacred territory for many Labour councillors, will be up against arts, culture, museums and the Library of Birmingham when the money is being dished out.

As one backbencher out it: “If it’s going to amount to a choice between children’s centres and nurseries for disadvantaged children and the very expensive Library of Birmingham, I known what I would prioritise. And it’s not the library.”

Sir Albert has set very firmly the view of the executive – that arts and culture must be protected where possible. Failure to do so would destroy at a stroke one of Birmingham’s biggest selling points as a leading centre for the arts outside of London. However, Sir Albert has also conceded that many of the organisations currently receiving subsidies will have to move to self-sufficiency by 2016 when the current funding agreements run out.

It remains to be seen whether the Library of Birmingham is given any special consideration. The answer is probably ‘no’ if certain backbench Labour councillors get their way because they regard the library as an expensive ‘Tory-Lib Dem vanity project’.

In that case, savings amounting to about £600,000 will have to be found in the current year and ongoing ‘budget pressures’ of almost £1 million must be dealt with.

Cavaliers might take the view that a civic building universally applauded when it opened two years ago, and praised as a glowing example of what councils can do in even the most difficult times, should be protected. Puritans might take the opposite view, particularly when the children’s centre down the road is threatened with closure.

The lines are drawn. Let battle commence.

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