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Slashing arts funding flies in the face of ambitions to level up

(Alamy)

4 min read

Last November, Arts Council England (ACE) announced that it would invest in more organisations outside London, but in its haste to be seen to level up it actually endangered that very aim.

Much attention has rightly been given to English National Opera (ENO) which faced a 100 per cent cut in its funding if it did not agree to move out of London with 12 weeks’ notice with Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, chair of the APPG on Opera, describing it as a “woeful and destructive action”.

Missed by many in the initial backlash, however, were the dire consequences of ACE’s decisions for the Welsh National Opera (WNO). Despite its name, Welsh National Opera has a 70-year history of spreading culture beyond its home in Wales and into communities across England. That way both countries get the benefit of a world-class opera company with productions and community work in the places that would otherwise miss out.

This sudden slashing of WNO funding caused the immediate withdrawal of all its performances in Liverpool, with ACE instructing the same in Birmingham

WNO plays a central role in promoting the health of the creative landscape and its talent pipelines as widely as Liverpool, Birmingham, Oxford, Bristol, Plymouth and Southampton. The new ACE Investment Programme, however, proposed a £2.13m cut in ACE’s annual funding of WNO work in England. WNO should have been regarded as a key partner in levelling up, rather than a target for cuts. 

This sudden slashing of WNO funding caused the immediate withdrawal of all its performances in Liverpool, with ACE instructing the same in Birmingham. The reduction in the cultural offer to those lesser-served areas was entirely inconsistent with the stated aims of the ACE decisions.

Incredibly the ACE funding cut to the WNO was made in isolation, without the most basic of due diligence. Cutting the number of venues and performances automatically affects the level of Theatre Tax Relief available. Extraordinarily, ACE don’t seem to have realised that their £2.13m cut to WNO would increase the true effect of the cuts to around £3.3m in 2023-24 due to lost Theatre Tax Credit. 

Equally astonishingly, in my questioning of ACE chief executive Darren Henley at the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, he admitted that ACE had not even consulted the Arts Council of Wales prior to making the WNO funding decisions. Failing to undertake those discussions to assess the likely impact of such a major change represented a fundamental dereliction of ACE’s duties as custodians of culture. While the cuts relate to the WNO’s work in England, Wales will also suffer from the inevitable reduction in mainstage opera titles over the coming years, and the close interest of the Arts Council of Wales in this is self-evident.  

What has followed since has been a partial retreat. For the ENO, it has been offered additional funding to maintain some of its work in London in the long-term with its primary base outside of the city. For the WNO, it has successfully applied for transitional funding to plug the immediate shortfalls and restructure. It has been told that it can perform for one week of the year in Birmingham and Oxford to help offset the tax credit loss, but its acclaimed community engagement programme in the Black Country and its Midlands hub remain under threat. 

None of this suggests an overarching strategic clarity from ACE about the wider opera sector.

In a period of deep financial difficulty arts and culture are often the first casualties of cutbacks. That is one reason why the arm’s length principle from government, which Jennie Lee built into the Arts Council at its founding, is so important. One can’t help but conclude that clear sight of that principle was lost in a rush to placate ministers looking for quick results on levelling up.

I hope that ACE will wise up following this debacle and pursue a policy to level up access to culture with a greater sense of the overall impact of its actions. 

 

Kevin Brennan, Labour MP for Cardiff West

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