Westminster City Council has followed councils in Newcastle, Somerset and Moray in making plans to cease directly funding arts organisations, approving a budget on 6 March which will see the borough overtake Wandsworth as the lowest-taxed authority in the UK.
Samuel West, chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, called it ‘a cruel, joyless decision’ and said it represented ‘unusual punishment’ in the context of cuts aimed at reducing the council’s budget by 3.3%. ‘Most of those working in the arts wouldn’t balk at a 3.3% cut; it’s their fair share, after all,’ he said.
Defending the proposals against a petition signed by several well-known actors, Westminster Council’s cabinet member for finance and customer services, Melvyn Caplan, had said: ‘In an ideal world we would continue commissioning our community arts projects, but the reality of the financial picture for councils means that tough decisions are unavoidable.
‘We are literally choosing between arts projects and keeping a library open, or retaining gangs workers on our estates, or running our meals on wheels service. There is no easy answer for the savings that are required, but we have chosen to protect services that are most vital to the vulnerable in our society.’
Mr West responded on 7 March: ‘To pretend that this money would otherwise go to meals-on-wheels or hip replacements is a false dichotomy: so-called “tough decisions” are still decisions, and this one, from a flagship Council, smacks of ideology.’
The ideological debate was fueled by a blog post on the Conservative Home website by Jean-Paul Floru, a Westminster councillor and senior research fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, who said: ‘When the population is struggling it is unacceptable for government to increase the tax burden.
‘Hard choices have to be made. How to decide what to focus on? Politicians are servants and not masters: we take our cue from the people.
‘Take, for example, the arts. Within two years Westminster is going to abolish its direct funding of the arts completely. I used to run an arts business. When the crisis of 2007 struck, people stopped buying art, and I terminated my business. It taught me that art is a luxury product. When people are strapped for cash, they don’t spend on luxuries.’
However, Floru’s dismissal of the arts organisations which the council funds as ‘luxuries’ is debatable: they were procured under eight categories which strongly suggest they were receiving council funds for their instrumental, rather than intrinsic, benefits: Arts for Skills and Employability, Early Intervention, Crime Diversion, Disability, Homelessness, Health, Vulnerable Adults, and Older People.
Floru had tweeted after the budget was agreed: ‘Boom! Just set the lowest council tax in the country in the Great City of Westminster!’
Streetwise Opera, which works to empower people who have experienced homelessness, and English National Opera’s community choir, which offers vulnerable Westminster residents access to high quality creative activities to reduce isolation, both face funding deficits thanks to the removal of Westminster’s funding after 2014 (though the organisations to be supported in 2013/14, the final year, have not yet been announced).
Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, leader of Westminster Council’s Labour Group, said: ‘The whole city will be poorer through the loss of these innovative projects.
‘This decision is even more difficult to understand when you consider that £350,000 is such a tiny proportion of the Council’s £900 million annual spending. The Conservatives have got their priorities back-to-front by taking an axe to the arts but preserving their £3 million a year budget for propaganda and glossy leaflets.’
‘It is madness for the Council to reduce community access to Westminster’s wonderful array of world-class arts and culture. If anything, we should be making more of these magnificent cultural facilities and arts organisations on our doorstep, rather than reducing access to them for children, young people and the elderly.’