100% arts funding cut? This Newcastle budget is an act of vandalism | Lee Hall

The Labour council's move is a political game intended to shame the coalition – and will wipe out the regional capital's culture

I was born into a working-class family in industrial Newcastle in 1966. Some might consider that to be a cultural disadvantage. My family weren't theatregoers or art lovers. We were pretty ordinary, actually. But what was extraordinary was the arts scene I grew to be part of. From the age of 14 I was in a youth theatre that toured obscure works by Brecht adapted to be searing commentaries on the miners' strike that was going on around us. I went to the Morden Tower to hear beatnik poets from the US; I got £5 tickets to see the Scottish Opera and the RSC at the Theatre Royal; I got an education in European cinema at the Tyneside Cinema, attended dance workshops at Dance City and virtually lived in the various city libraries. And I did so with scores of other "ordinary" working-class kids, many of whom I still work with in my various stage plays. Later I was to write pieces like Billy Elliot or the Pitmen Painters – celebrations of "ordinary" people practising art.

Newcastle has been exceptional in creating a culture where art is central to our identity. This art – the Angel of the North or Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – becomes part of how we perceive ourselves. They were symbols that our imaginations and our industrial heritage could be squared. That there was a future for us without losing who we were. But the halcyon days of the mid-80s are over; we are into a bleaker terrain than even the worst years of Thatcherism. So bleak that the Labour council has just announced it will abolish all arts funding.

We all understand the council is in a difficult position. There are huge reductions in the grant from central government yet it is unable to raise money locally. But while the 100% cut in the arts budget is, on the surface, a desperate cry for help, it is an extraordinarily counterproductive move. It put Newcastle completely out of step with every other Labour council – and these cuts will directly affect the poorest. Reading and learning should not just be for the privileged, for the people who can afford books from Amazon or trips to Stratford-upon-Avon. They must be open to everyone, no matter what their economic circumstances.

The story from the council is that "the money's run out", and we have to make difficult decisions. Yet if you look behind the headlines to the council's own figures, a very different picture emerges. The cuts to arts and libraries were announced in the very same policy document that heralds a £418m capital spending spree, £79m of which comes directly from the council's coffers. Only £39m of the projected £90m deficit over the next three years is due to central government cuts. The other £51m includes rough estimates and a mysterious £5m for "costs of the downturn", which is precisely the amount of the entire arts budget over the period. The council does have a choice. It is choosing to wipe out culture from Newcastle.

The arts bring a huge amount of money into the city, which means real jobs for real people. For every £1 the council spends, roughly £15 is invested in these organisations (in terms of grants, charitable donations and other revenue streams), with an additional £4 going into the local economy: the very bars, restaurants, hotels and taxi firms the council are trying to support via their £418m investment programme. The arts make up only 0.7% of the council budget, but they provide the core income that allows these organisations to attract millions more in national and international grants, sponsorship (the first thing sponsors ask is "How much does the local council give?"), and fund work with the young, elderly and disadvantaged that has drifted out of social care budgets and into the arts.

What is clearly going on is a game of politics. In order to shame the coalition the council is willing to risk the future of the Theatre Royal, the Laing Art Gallery, the Tyneside Cinema and more. These are places open to everyone. These are the things which make Newcastle a place to be proud of, a place worth living in. This is not about some fancy stuff for a few people. It's about the identity of Newcastle as a city, a regional capital. No attempt has been made to save a single organisation or even a small part of their work. The council is willing to make Newcastle a cultural wasteland to make a political point. Gateshead council has gone on record to say that it will protect the arts. No one is arguing that the arts should be sacrosanct, but this scorched earth policy runs in direct contradiction to economic development targets.

We are simply asking for a proportionate response. We rely on the council to protect our heritage and our libraries precisely because these are difficult times. The city has been funding the arts since the mystery plays in 1495. To stop now would be an act of vandalism on a huge scale. It really is not necessary: we must not let them do it.


Lee Hall

The GuardianTramp

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