Why the Arts and Culture sector needs to lobby ministers to support local councils

The Cambridge Arts Network had its annual conference today (22 Feb 2023). For the short time I was able to be there, I was struck by how the dots between local government and national arts organisations with ministerial access needed to be connected.

The joys of chronic fatigue meant it was always going to be a struggle following what representatives of & consultants/architects for the developers told me about the Hobson Street Cinema a couple of days earlier. For those asking what can be done to try and save the front of the cinema, the best thing I can recommend is to get involved with Cambridge Past, Present, & Future. Simply because one of their corporate aims is:

“[Cambridge PPF is] working to protect, celebrate and improve the important built heritage of the Cambridge area.”

Cambridge Past, Present, & Future – Our Aims

Cambridge PPF is also the local civic society group that is part of the national group called Civic Voice of which former Cambridge Footlights member (and Cambridge student) Griff Rhys Jones has been the president of since 2009. (You may have seen him on telly over the past four decades or so). Last year he was back in these parts with Cambridge PPF calling for a rethink over busway plans running south east out of Cambridge. And with good reason – Cambridge Connect, Rail Future East, and Rail Haverhill already had a workable proposal (it’s still there) as an alternative. (Anyone interested in campaigning on alternative public transport between Cambridge and Haverhill can get in touch with them via Rail Future East here).

“What’s that got to do with art?”

Everything – not least because the links between art and heritage were one of the core themes for this year’s conference. Hence it was really good to see lots of ageing stereotypes and ways of working being challenged, not least by:

We saw two excellent examples of organisations going out to places far outside of their comfort zones.

The Cambridge Science Centre popping up in Fenland towns

…and the Museum of Cambridge popping up at neighbourhood nursery groups

….which was splendid to see from my personal perspective because this was one of my former policy areas in my civil service days, and whenever the discussion of ‘how to reach out to ‘hard to reach’ groups came up’ I found out very quickly that organisations were reluctant to go to where their desired demographic group of people lived their day-to-day lives. Far easier to have corporate events in hotel conference suites in city centres, or in revamped university buildings. For organisations wanting to support community groups, one of the best things you can do is to book out the facilities they have available to hire (Cambridge City Council has a few in neighbourhood centres) on a commercial basis because that then provides much-needed income for them, and it gets your delegates out and about to places they might not even know exists.

The UK events industry and the cost of living crisis

This was one of the themes of Nick Morgan’s talk in the afternoon – he’s the CEO of We Are The Fair events organisers. We got a reminder of the impact of Brexit and how successive failures by ministers was clogging up the logistics system that underpins the entire industry, an important part of the UK Arts & Culture sector.

Don’t think it doesn’t affect Cambridge – it does and has – as we found out the hard way.

“With a heavy heart we must cancel this year’s Cambridge Beer Festival [2022] on Jesus Green. Despite massive efforts from our volunteers, a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit, and other factors have led to unresolvable supply chain issues for critical elements of the festival infrastructure. We are working to explore our options for next year.”

From 2022 – cancellation of the Cambridge Beer Festival
Which is why it is splendid news the Cambridge Beer Festival is back on for 2023!

Read the press release here.

Above – Puffles the Dragon Fairy at the Cambridge Beer Festival in 2012 shortly after the local elections that year – and with Keith Edkins who maintains the incredibly useful Cambridge Elections History database created by the late Colin Rosenstiel, that goes back to 1935. (If you want to see how Cambridge has changed as a city *politically* then their colourful election charts are essential viewing – note the city was until the 1980s a Tory fortress).

Frustration in the room about what should be done in the face of the crisis

You could hear it from the frustration in the questions – and also from the comments put to me by a number of the participants about a range of issues such as ‘Key Performance Indicators’ and whether organisers were evaluating the right things, through to continued poor accessibility of events, where people with disabilities or chronic conditions are seen as an afterthought.

A couple of people mentioned this to me and I thought: “Why does their experience sound familiar?” – or rather, agreeing with what they told me, noting my own chronic illnesses mean that I cannot do the things that perhaps a couple of decades ago that I might have taken for granted. Today, even going down the road to The Junction in Cambridge is something that (on my part requires precision planning – from looking up bus timetables to working out when to take which medication, to how much food should I have before and after the event.

This is also why the future of Cambridge’s bus services is ever so important: most of the services that served Anglia Ruskin University and its predecessor institutions on East Road were withdrawn by Stagecoach and predecessor privatised firms so that there is no direct public transport stop on the Citi Network that stops outside the University’s main entrance on East Road. One of the things I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts is the importance of having a transport network that doesn’t just serve commuters, but also serves public services and community facilities. Today’s event was a classic example of where one of our most important institutions in our city is woefully served by a firm (Stagecoach) that is now owned by German infrastructure fund DWS Infrastructure. Such ownership means there is hardly any incentive for the firm to provide a decent city-wide network: only an incentive to run services on the most profitable routes. This is despite Michael Heseltine as Deputy Prime Minister in 1994 stating that privatisation should provide:

  • choice for customers
  • competition amongst suppliers
  • improved productivity & efficiency
  • employee participation and wider share ownership
  • value for the taxpayer and
  • clarity of purpose for the Government.

Above – From the CPC in 1994 here

Lobbying ministers to overhaul local government and support local councils

Mr Morgan mentioned meeting ministers as part of an APPG – this is I think is the All Party Parliamentary Group for UK Events, where he stated that more ministers from a greater range of policy areas needed to engage with the events sector. Given he stated fuel, steel, and hauliers (a shortage &/or increasing costs of all) he has a good point. This reflects the multiple impacts of government policy failures across a range of sectors that has ended up hitting industries where ministers least expected – despite repeated warnings. Yet given his comments about the industry working closely with local councils – and the cuts to funding they received, I asked whether national arts and culture industry representatives were making the case for local government. Even more so given House of Commons select committees have slammed the Government over both local government financing and the entire broken structure of local government in England.

My call to him and to everyone in the room was and is to urge those at the top of the arts and culture industry with access to ministers to make the case for reversing austerity. Even enabling councils to tap into the wealth their economies are supposedly making (such as in Cambridge here, where councils get very little benefit) would go some way. Dealing with the structural and funding crises would enable councils to get back to supporting grassroots arts and culture – putting them at what is core to civic pride in our towns and cities. After all, arts and culture are not just nice to haves.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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