Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Not tilting at windmills

Across the last weeks, everyone in the arts has been running around at a frantic pace.  At this time of year generally, with the on-coming jangle of sleigh-bells heralding a well-earned rest, the increasingly highly competitive process of making application to funders, not least the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, is well under-way. But this year, and indeed, at this very time, the situation has shifted. The pace is upped. The stakes are far higher. For some, it is a matter of survival, for others, perhaps extinction.

We are not titling at windmills here. 
The challenges are real and the outcomes decisive. "Its the economy stupid" might be better translated as "its our stupid economy". There is a very clear line from Westminster, through to the Assembly that then moves through local departments and then trickles through publicly funded organisations until it reaches the communities that require the support. This financial lifeblood is under threat from right at the source and there are many who would seek to dam and divert the flow of public funds to various areas at various points thereafter. Christmas might be the 25th, but the final day for receipt of Draft Budget Responses is the 29th of December. Handy eh?

Around the source of our public subvention, in No11, the Treasury, Whitehall, plans are already afoot to deny the mathematics that have underpinned the Barnett formula. The Conservative government, fresh on the heels of a narrow no vote in Scotland, seem to be on a path to penalise "all the regions" that have monies calculated via Barnett, that afford those areas more because they actually require more due to their socio-economic circumstance. Rolling back on the Barnett formula will have almost immediate impacts on how much less we receive. Added to that, our public representatives, at least those in the 5 executive parties of the Assembly,  have to factor in what effect Welfare Reform and penalties will have and how to pay for a massive tax cut to business via Corporation tax-raising legislation. We will know our fate in early December in this regard ie if the overall budget will amount to the same.
But we already know where the cuts may fall in the overall draft budget and we now know what the draft DCAL Budget is too.

Northern Ireland needs to hang on to the £10.5 billion that we receive at the very least. That is the same amount that we have received for that last 4 years and we all know that everything is getting dearer, slowly, but steadily. So in real terms we are receiving less and less. With additional spending in tax breaks and penalties, we are all facing big cuts, ring-fenced or not.

But with the new DCAL budget The principal funder of the arts, ACNI stands to lose 11.1% of exchequer funding by my calculations below. When you hear the term decimated that is what is happening to arts spend locally. 

Now, the Arts Council reckon that the distribution of exchequer funds to the arts works out at 13p per person per week. Whilst this is a shockingly low amount, capable of buying very little today, the comparisons are illuminating too. Say for a family of 4. Just 50p is the allocated ratio per week to support the arts but for health and social services, this is more like £200. Now we know that hospitals and doctors save lives, and all of us have benefitted from universal health care, free at the point of delivery but the arts sustain our health and well-being in so many ways.

The arts, which are highly effective promoters not only of creative excellence but employment, social cohesion, civic participation, economic growth and our sense of well-being, play a prominent role in many of our best-loved events. Northern Ireland already has, by some margin, the lowest per-capita spend on the arts across Great Britain, N Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at one hundredth of 1% (0.01%) of all exchequer subvention. The compounding effect of any further withdrawals of exchequer funding would impact increasingly negatively not only on local and national audiences and participation but our international tourism offer as well. The arts support a deep, local creative heritage whilst enabling a broad global appeal and in so doing, are fundamental in offering vibrant, authentic cultural experiences to citizen and visitor alike. 

I was speaking at a Rural Community Forum on Monday and indeed will be attending more of CAP's research forums in December and was struck with just how much the arts mean to people and how deeply the impact of the arts is felt in so many communities right across the region.  Community groups, arts development officers, artists and community leaders all recognising the impact that the arts make. Not just the intrinsic power to make and create but to harness that the solving problems and highlighting issues in rural areas like social isolation, suicide, low educational attainment, mental health services, supporting detached youth etc. Indeed, this 5 hour forum underlined just how diverse the arts were in both their variety of forms and practice but also their deep and lasting impact. The arts are changing lives, offering development and employment and are supporting people everyday.

Our community activists, resourceful and socially aware,  are all seeking change and all recognise the power that the arts hold. But again, we all shared a sense of despair that the little funding that makes its way to the arts at grass roots level is now even more at threat.  

But perhaps we should not despair whilst we still have a change to affect the funding allocation. 
The DCAL budget highlights the community impact of libraries and has accordingly sought to protect that budget by passing on higher cuts elsewhere. But we know that community arts has an even greater impact on our communities, working with people where they are located, supporting their choices in design and production and listening intently to the issues and ideas that come from our communities. CAP alone has worked with over 350 community organisations and 180 schools across Northern Ireland in the last 3 years. In fact, alongside this we have a dedicated Intercultural Support Programme (PICAS), a dedicated disability arts programme (Side by Side), a dedicated dementia research programme, a dedicated rural community arts research programme and an international community culture research initiative. We also have the most used e-news resource in Northern Ireland for the arts with a website that has over 7 million hits years on year. If that isn't community reach I don't know what is. So, why is that libraries are protected when community arts are not. I would urge you when you are making your consultation response to this budget to bear that in mind and maybe point that out to our officials in the Dept of Culture Arts and Leisure. 

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