Wednesday briefing: Inside Arts Council England’s devastating cuts

In today’s newsletter: As enraged arts workers protest, we explore what the new world might look like for our cultural institutions – and why even opera haters should care about the fate of English National Opera

Good morning. Three weeks ago, the body that decides arts funding in England cut £50m worth of grants in London in order to support organisations outside the capital. It chopped English National Opera’s grant from £12.5m a year to zero, instead offering it £17m over three years to move, possibly to Manchester. On Tuesday, hundreds of artists and culture workers congregated outside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to protest against those decisions. “The government has done nothing to nurture us,” the actor Zainab Hasan said, “and everything to destroy what makes our industry brilliant.”

Enraged though the demonstrators are, their appeals are likely to be ignored – and the funding decisions by Arts Council England will radically alter the cultural landscape. To their defenders, that is levelling up in action, an overdue rebalancing of a system that has always prioritised London. But critics argue that the changes are a zero-sum attack on some of Britain’s most important cultural institutions that will leave everybody poorer.

Charlotte Higgins, the Guardian’s chief culture writer, has been making that case over the last few weeks. For today’s newsletter, I spoke to her about what the new world might look like – and why everyone, even a philistine like me, should care about the fate of English National Opera. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Health | Ill patients are refusing sicknotes from their GP because they cannot afford time off work, while physicians suffer “moral distress” at their powerlessness to do more to help the most vulnerable, the new leader of Britain’s family doctors has revealed.

  2. Home Office | The Manston asylum centre is now empty after weeks of controversy. Just a few weeks ago 4,000 arrivals, almost three times the maximum capacity, were placed there by the Home Office.

  3. US news | A shooting at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia, on Tuesday night resulted in multiple fatalities, according to local authorities. The shooter was among the dead.

  4. Rail strikes | Rail passengers will face further disruption across Britain at Christmas after the RMT union announced a series of 48-hour strikes in December and January. Strikes will run over six consecutive days in the run-up to Christmas.

  5. US politics | The US supreme court will allow a congressional committee to receive copies of Donald Trump’s tax returns, ending a three-year battle by the Democratic-led body to see the documents the former president has famously refused to release since his first White House bid.

In depth: Who loses – and who might win – with a ‘levelling up’ in arts funding

Entertainment industry workers outside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in London on Tuesday.
Entertainment industry workers outside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in London on Tuesday. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA

If the specifics of the decision from Arts Council England (ACE) earlier this month came as a shock, the sense of a cultural shift away from London is nothing new. “For seven or eight years, there’s been increasing recognition that it’s not OK how imbalanced arts funding is across the country,” Charlotte Higgins said. Before the new funding was announced, ACE spent £21 a head in London, against an average of £6 across England. “That is very stark, and that is part of what the Arts Council was aiming to address.”

But in February, then-culture secretary Nadine Dorries instructed ACE to enact those changes in the most stringent terms. As well as £43m in new funding outside London, Dorries instructed ACE to shift at least £24m in existing funding out of the capital. Dorries said it was “proof that levelling up isn’t just a catchy slogan”.

“In order to make it work, it was clear they were going to have to defund a massive organisation at cataclysmic speed,” Charlotte said – as she warned in this September piece. She also said that, against that £43m in new money, the ACE budget for grants of £341m is down between 30% and 50% on what it was worth in 2010.


What it means outside London

English National Opera is to relocate, possibly to Manchester, while operating the Coliseum in London.
ENO is to relocate, possibly to Manchester, while operating the Coliseum in London. Photograph: Grant Smith/VIEW

Even so, the new money is unambiguous good news for some cultural organisations outside London, like Bamboozle, a Leicester-based theatre company for children on the autism spectrum or with learning disabilities, and Shakespeare North Playhouse in Merseyside. ACE says that the money represents the “widest-ever spread of investment across the country”, with 276 organisations that have never been funded before.

“It is wonderful news that money is reaching artist-led companies such Claybody Theatre and Restoke in the Potteries, where I come from,” Charlotte wrote on Saturday. “People in Stoke-on-Trent are delighted,” she told me. “They’re suddenly able to look at infrastructure they didn’t have before. It’s amazing.” And London still gets the biggest piece of the pie, with £152m, or about a third of the total.


What it means in London – and for English National Opera

Despite that fact, the news is disastrous for many organisations in London. The Barbican Centre and the Donmar Warehouse had their funding cut to zero, as did the Gate theatre and the Hampstead theatre. But it is the loss of funding for English National Opera that has drawn the most attention.

There is a path to some money (far less than the £12.5m annually it has lost) for ENO. It has been told that if it relocates outside the capital, it will get £17m over three years to help, and will then be eligible to apply in the next funding round in 2026. In a comment piece for the Guardian, ACE chief executive Darren Henley cast this as supporting “a bright, if different, future for ENO”.

Some have chafed at what they see as a condescending attempt to dress a swingeing cut as a nudge in the right direction – and it is not clear that the move is welcomed by other opera companies outside London, who may face new competition. “What we’ve seen is funding cuts to organisations that tour quite widely in England at the same time as asking ENO to move,” Charlotte said. “So that’s really hard to understand.”

If ENO relocates, it will be vastly reduced from its current status. Chief executive Stuart Murphy wrote for the Guardian that on the terms set out by ACE, “the only thing we can do is make the orchestra chorus and technical teams redundant. And if that’s not decimating ENO, I don’t know what it is.”


Isn’t that justified?

To all of this you might say: if the choice is between more culture for London and some culture for everywhere else, it is still a straightforward one. The argument made at the protest yesterday (at which the ENO chorus provided a much superior rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to the one you usually get) is that the government and ACE have set different parts of the country against each other in competition for a pitiful pie. “The truth is that, when you set it in the larger context, the sums involved are unbelievably small,” Charlotte said.

She points out that, against the £341m total annual ACE budget, Eat Out to Help Out cost £849m for one month. The cost of the bailout of the energy company Bulb is £6.5bn so far, £4bn more than was budgeted in March. These comparisons are obviously not direct – but they do suggest that set against overall public spending, the money to keep ENO going is a rounding error.

If the image of opera in London suggests toffs in formal wear, Charlotte pointed out: “What will happen is that greater London, with its diverse population, will be left with the Royal Opera House, which is an extremely expensive, luxury experience. If you’re an ordinary person under 35 in London [and therefore eligible for discounted ENO tickets], you are not going to be able to see as it was written.”

You might still say: these are hard times, and opera is not a priority. “It is very difficult when the available pot is dwindling,” Charlotte said. “But we should support our cultural life and all of the good that it does as well as make life better in other ways. That is part of a functioning society.”


Why opera-haters should care

Look, I’ve been to the opera once in the last 20 years, and I slept through half of it. If I had my way, cultural funding would go to Southampton Football Club, the occasional novelist, the creators of some wheyfaced indie music from the early 2000s and the makers of the Grand Theft Auto series. We can all presumably come up with similarly myopic lists.

Correcting those impulses is the whole point, Charlotte said. “Public intervention in the arts is there because the market is not an ideal arbiter. It is not sufficient to protect things that we may collectively think matter whatever our own preferences.”

At protests like yesterday’s, that argument is being made more forcefully than it has been for some time. But with the cultural sector worse affected by the pandemic than any industry other than hospitality, that energy is not a given. “This news has been absolutely devastating,” Charlotte said. “It feels like this thing which is incredibly successful and which we ought to be proud of has been ground down. People are exhausted.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Older generations dismissing the emotions of young people as thin-skinned melodrama is not new. Zoe Williams challenges this notion brilliantly, arguing that minimising the complex experiences of younger people does little but breed resentment and deepen a divide between the generations. Nimo

  • You might remember The Terminal, the Hollywood rendition of the life of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived at Charles de Gaulle airport for 18 years and died recently. The co-author of his autobiography, Andrew Donkin, looks back on the remarkable reality. Archie

  • Christian Weaver, who represented the family of Awaab Ishak at the inquest into the two-year-old’s death after he was exposed to mould in his house in Rochdale, writes that the tragedy must herald wider change in social housing – but warns: “Grenfell Tower … has shown that moments that should be defining are often not.” Archie

  • The mass shooting at a gay club in Colorado was predictable, writes Moira Donegan, because of the escalating homophobic rhetoric emanating from rightwing circles in the US. Nimo

  • Adi Renaldi spoke to the people living in the aftermath of a 5.6 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia – lives have been upended, buildings are uninhabitable and families have been forced to live in tents. Nimo

World Cup 2022

Saudi Arabia provided the first big upset of the tournament with a 2-1 win against Argentina. Jonathan Liew calls it “the 21st century’s greatest World Cup shock”. France recovered from an early scare to beat Australia 4-1: Barney Ronay’s piece focuses on Kylian Mbappé, “a blue-chip athletic commodity, to be traded and hoarded and displayed like a private Picasso”. There were also 0-0 draws between Denmark and Tunisia and Mexico and Poland – the latter after Robert Lewandowski missed a second-half penalty. Meanwhile, Marina Hyde writes on the OneLove armband controversy, and argues: “Sacrifices that don’t benefit you are harder. Structural change requires structural action, and plastic gestures will generate plastic results.” And if you’re wondering why there have been such mad amounts of injury time, Sean Ingle has the answer.

Other sport

Football | The Glazer family has announced it is “commencing a process to explore strategic alternatives” for Manchester United, potentially bringing an end to its 17-year ownership of the club. The news came as it was also confirmed that Cristiano Ronaldo had left Old Trafford by mutual consent.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 23 November 2022

Wednesday’s Guardian print edition leads with “Doctors’ warning: poverty forcing sick people to keep going to work”. “It’s Mick Grinch” – that’s what the Metro calls the rail union leader over a threat of Christmas strikes. The Daily Mail pleads “When WILL we rein in the unions intent on Xmas chaos?” while the Daily Express says “Unions inflict Christmas strike misery”. The Times leads with “Big rise in gambling addictions”, while the Telegraph reports that “Menopausal NHS staff can work from home”. “Country that bans love” – that’s the Mirror, about the “Qatar war on equality” around World Cup armbands, hats and other displays for inclusivity. Planning reforms are the lead in the i: “Rebels force Sunak to back down on housing”. The Financial Times has “Only Russia will perform worse than the UK in next 2 years, OECD warns” (just don’t blame Brexit). “Hero to the throne” – the Sun got King Charles to give Dr Freda Newlands one of its “Who Cares Wins” awards for NHS workers.

Today in Focus

Trump and DeSantis

Trump v DeSantis: how the ex-president’s fan could soon be his biggest rival

Florida governor Ron DeSantis passionately praised the former president – now he is being talked about as a possible presidential candidate himself. What could a bitter battle between the two Republicans mean for the party and US politics?

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

Martin Rowson on Keir Starmer’s speech to the CBI conference

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

England fans in Croydon celebrate the opening World Cup victory against Iran on Monday.
England fans in Croydon celebrate the opening World Cup victory against Iran on Monday. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

This Fan Girl is a not-for-profit digital platform to connect women and non-binary people and help them watch football together safely in pubs and other public places. The co-founders of the platform have launched a voluntary charter for pubs that shows patrons they are fostering a secure environment for women and non-binary people to enjoy the game. The charter includes guarantees that the pub will have options to book tables in advance and a pledge to use de-escalation tactics like switching on lights and serving water at full-time to prevent aggressive behaviour. The 40 pubs that have signed up are listed in This Fan Girl’s pub finder. “The reality is [the World Cup] is still going to get shown and it’s going to be enjoyed by people around the world and we want to provide support for those that are going to be watching it,” said co-founder Amy Drucquer.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.


Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

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