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Austerity and the arts: the hidden cuts that are bad for our cultural health

28th April 2015

The main parties show commitment in their manifestos to increasing access to and diversity in the arts, yet they are ignoring the devastating effects of local cuts.

The main parties’ manifestos include in their arts programmes commitments to increasing access and diversity. These are worthy and important goals in themselves, but at the same time no party – save the Greens – addresses the issue of the cuts in local arts services, which are severing the branch on which these twin goals sit.

These cuts are part of the hidden and rarely commented on effects of austerity over the last five years, which have had a considerable impact on local government services of all kinds, but which have fallen particularly hard on areas such as culture, which some perceive as non-essential.

The result is a severe erosion of the availability of culture to young people with the closure of local libraries, smaller theatres, and cuts to the provision of music services.

It is pointless having a top-down commitment to access and diversity from the government-supported institutions if considerable cuts to funding are forcing local authorities to narrow their cultural programmes and opportunities.

Costs of music lessons in Pembrokeshire, for example, are expected to rise by up to £4 an hour, with an additional travel cost of around £60 per pupil per term for transport to ensemble practices which was previously free, all as a result of Pembrokeshire county council music service needing to cut their funding by £75,000 in 2014/15, and having to cut by the same amount in 2015/16. If the plans by Wiltshire council to cut music tuition as part of making a required £30m of savings go ahead, they could deprive those from lower-income families of benefiting from funding that placed music teachers in schools. These cases are not isolated; we are seeing similar occurrences right across the country.

There is not merely a disjunction between pious but empty commitments in the manifestos and the reality within the fabric of cultural provision, but also between other official statements about the role of the arts in education. As Vikki Heywood said, the key message of the Warwick Commission’s final report on the future of cultural value – which found that only 8% of the population can be defined as “culturally active” – is that “… the government and the cultural and creative industries need to take a united and coherent approach that guarantees equal access for everyone to a rich cultural education and the opportunity to live a creative life. There are barriers and inequalities in Britain today that prevent this from being a universal human right. This is bad for business and bad for society.”

At the moment, the manifestos suggest that government expects the creative industries to take a lead on this, without acknowledging that the unintentional consequences of government policy on local government is raising those barriers and inequalities.

With the creative industries worth £76.9bn per year to the UK economy, it doesn’t make sense to hack off the grassroots provision that leads to the discovery and nurturing of talent and expressive ability.

The commission quite rightly sets out the value to Britain of the entire “eco-system” of cultural life, which starts with provision at the school level, and ends up by delivering brilliant public spectacles such as the opening of the Olympics. With the creative industries worth £76.9bn per year to the UK economy, it doesn’t make sense to hack off the grassroots provision that leads to the discovery and nurturing of talent and expressive ability. This damage to the fabric of cultural provision is especially dangerous as we may not even be aware of the full consequences till these children mature in 15 years’ time into an increasingly segregated society.

DCMS statistics already evidence that participation in arts activities in schools is dropping, with participation in music activities dropping from 55.3% to a worryingly low 37.2% between 2009 and 2013/14. While inspection targets appreciate the arts in schools, the focus remains around literacy and numeracy levels and the decrease in education budgets across the UK doesn’t allow for additional cultural provision.

This is the opposite of what is proposed by the Donaldson Report into education in Wales, which specifically recommends that the curriculum be organised into “six areas of learning and experience: expressive arts; health and wellbeing; humanities; languages, literacy and communication; maths and numeracy; and science and technology”.

Inspired by the placing of “expressive arts” at the head of this list, the Welsh government has announced a fund of £20m over the next five years for arts in education with the potential to reach a third of schools in Wales over the five-year period of this plan, which is in itself highly admirable, but is simultaneously undermined by the local authority cuts.

Essentially, I don’t believe this problem is truly political. I don’t believe anyone set out with the specific intention of slashing cultural provision at the grassroots, and whichever government comes into power, the amount of available money is not going to change radically. So what is really important is that the damage is recognised and acknowledged rather than being buried under more eye-catching headlines. For instance, Labour has made a commitment in their manifesto to a “universal entitlement to a creative education for every child”, but the achievement of this policy could be being simultaneously undermined by the withdrawal of local authority support.

This may seem like a tough case to make in the face of financial pressure on mainstream health and education, but we are all increasingly aware that well-being is not something that can be segmented into physical health alone. There are many kinds of health, and a lively mind stimulated and nurtured by cultural experience is one very important kind of health – a kind of health that can inspire and energise a new generation. We urge all parties to wake up to the reality, before that new generation becomes a lost generation.

David Pountney is chief executive and artistic director of Welsh National Opera.

Read more on the Guardian website