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For the fifth time since assuming the leadership of Nottingham Playhouse, Stephanie Sirr is galvanising objections to a major funding cut.

Nottingham Playhouse
Nottingham Playhouse is facing a 100% cut in its local authority funding

David Baird

This time it’s the big one, a proposed 100% cut of the culture revenue budget from Nottingham City Council. 

The change in the status quo over the past 13 years is dizzying. In the case of Nottingham Playhouse, it’s a reduction in combined local authority (LA) funding from £433,000 to zero. 

Despite working in all their target wards, with people who rely on us for much more than entertainment, we will receive not a penny of contribution from our local authority.

Gripes about culture

It's worth reminding ourselves that, historically, local authorities have been the largest funders of culture in the UK. From the civic theatre builds of the 1960s and 1970s, through significant cultural teams employed by LAs, to running their own cultural events and festivals in partnership with resident arts venues and creatives. Nottinghamshire for example once had 17 people in its Stages Team.

But there has been a move over the last decade - with increasing austerity - to abandon that as even a desirable model and to leave cultural funding either to the commercial sector or entirely to ACE. This year, with many councils facing bankruptcy, things have got dramatically worse. 

There have been various gripes levied at culture in the past. Choice phrases such: “Working class people don’t go to the theatre” (they do). Or: “We’re providing a service for tourists who don’t pay council tax” (they’re generating multiple millions of economic impact). And: “You should balance your books without a begging bowl” (we’re not going to charge our poorest communities the actual cost for a cultural life). Thankfully, these are mostly consigned to the past.  

If you’re an average family - tough

The increased use of accurate data and qualitative and quantitative research has disproved most of them. Culture is widely used, generates millions of visits, has huge economic impact and offers the chance for your kids to gain confidence. It is a true win-win. 

However, despite an understanding of the positive impact of culture on every aspect of our lives, local authorities mispresent culture as an optional extra. At best, they feign ignorance of the community and the cash capital of having a thriving cultural offer. At worst, they attack it.  

They seem to expect that, if ACE invests in your town or city, they can pick up the pieces. If they don’t, well there may just not be any cultural offer or opportunity. Of course, the wealthy will still find it. If you can afford £40+ a week for an offer like Stagecoach or can pay for private school, your children will still be accessing a cultural life and every advantage that offers. But if you’re an average family – tough.  

Culture supports literacy, oracy and mental health, it reduces loneliness, attracts tourism and provides employment. As if that weren’t enough, it is the main driver for attracting visitors and motivating businesses to relocate. It encourages empathy, supports social cohesion, and provides a refuge – never more important than now. 

Seldom been a greater need for culture

For many, culture at local level is the first step to a lifetime of creativity - everything from youth theatre to art classes, to Conversation Cafes or enjoying a museum, gallery, play or pantomime. During the pandemic it was the cultural sector that looked after its communities by moving classes online, running Pen Pal schemes, digitising output and keeping the cultural sector in its embrace during very tough times.   

Culture is too valuable to communities to hope that someone else will pay for it. Some of the most bespoke and impactful work cannot possibly wash its face financially. It’s not as simple as selling a full price ticket to a pantomime. It might be a specialist drama workshop offering a first outing in the community for a recovering addict, care leaver or a young autistic person. Losing access to life-enhancing cultural opportunities does not solve challenges, it simply removes support and creates problems further down the line.  

Let’s be in no doubt, for our poorest communities and those living in the most challenging personal circumstances, there has seldom been a greater need for our work. Across the UK, cultural organisations are delivering extraordinary, life changing, uplifting engagement projects that will improve the life outcomes of those participants. 

Nationwide shoulder shrug

At Nottingham Playhouse we run around 70 different schemes. For those to be self-supporting would price out the very people they are designed to help. In recent years, many people have commented on the extent to which National Portfolio theatres have replaced the multiple, previously local authority-run, schemes for young and old. Now the rug is being pulled from those on a horrific scale. 

The damage these cuts will have on the UK's cultural infrastructure, business and tourism and national wellbeing is profound. And it is extremely difficult to claw back what you have lost once it is gone. As it stands there is a nationwide shoulder shrug on the issue of local level arts investment. ACE cannot be the only source of investment and certainly not at its current level of DCMS funding.   

And why wouldn’t a local authority want to play a strategic role in a sector that delivers so much for so many for so little? Will an incoming government pledge to protect cultural life in all towns and cities? When will national government wake up to the carnage these punitive reducing local authority settlements represent?

World class reputation is built on an ecosystem

As a Chief Executive of theatres for nearly 30 years, I am bound to close with an observation about theatre. We make brilliant theatre in the UK. It is world-class, some say we make the best theatre in the world.

What nobody seems to discuss is the “how”: the ecosystem that supports the world reputation that runs from youth theatres to university or drama school to the National Theatre.  

Investment in culture at local level is directly related to our success as a world power in the theatre. It is directly related to a West End that generates more VAT every year than regional ACE and local authority investment in culture combined. 

It is time to start acknowledging and protecting the enormous impact of that ecosystem.
Stephanie Sirr MBE is Chief Executive of Nottingham Playhouse and Joint President of UK Theatre.
@NottmPlayhouse | @stephsirr

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We are going through a period of phenomenal change. No one would want to disagree with this. Where people disagree is who should bear the brunt for the implosion that we are facing.