Andy Burnham has told the English National Opera (ENO) that the company is not welcome in Manchester if it does not want to relocate there from London.
“If they think we are all heathens here, that nobody would go, I’m afraid it doesn’t understand us and therefore it doesn’t deserve to come here. If they want to come, come willingly. If you can’t come willingly, don’t come at all,” the mayor of Greater Manchester said on Wednesday.
A bitter battle has erupted over the ENO’s future after Arts Council England (ACE) threatened to cut its funding to zero if it did not leave London.
Earlier this month, the opera house said it would receive a three-year grant of £17m from ACE to create a new base outside the capital, “potentially in Manchester”.
The mooted move prompted howls of protest, with 57,000 people signing a petition from the opera singer Bryn Terfel demanding ACE reinstate ENO’s funding immediately, and the broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg saying the decision amounted to “cultural vandalism”.
Neither the ENO nor ACE appeared to have canvassed any key cultural figures in Manchester about the potential move, including Burnham.
“If they don’t want to come willingly, we don’t want them,” he told the Great Northern Conference, a meeting of business and political leaders, on Wednesday.
Burnham said the protests reminded him of his time as culture secretary in Gordon Brown’s government, when the BBC was being forced to relocate large chunks of its workforce to Salford.
“I remember the BBC saying the same thing to me when I was culture secretary – that it wouldn’t work up here, blah di blah, all the arguments they trotted out. They were made to come and they should have been, because of the way they are publicly funded.
“Is anybody here going to say to me today that the BBC isn’t stronger by moving to Media City? It’s got more legitimacy and is in a better place with regards to recognising the diversity of the country,” he said.
At the same conference, the mayor of South Yorkshire, Oliver Coppard, said the ENO would be “very welcome” in Sheffield or anywhere in his patch.
ENO said its move marked the “start of a new chapter” and would help with “building new audiences and reach beyond London”. It plans to continue to manage and perform at its London home, the Coliseum, while “maximising it as a commercial asset”.
An ENO spokesperson said: “It has been misreported that we are against moving to Manchester. This is not the case. We are against Arts Council England arbitrarily plucking a location without any consultation with us, the city itself or indeed other cultural organisations who operate there.
“We are against ACE suggesting that we can do so in an unrealistic timeframe when other arts organisations who have relocated have had four years to do so. Additionally, we don’t understand why ACE think that Manchester is not worthy of the same level of investment as London, having only offered the ENO less than 50% of our current funding level to move there. That isn’t levelling up, it is an insult to the people of Manchester, who are in no way heathens.”