London arts threat as £26m scheme faces axe

Theatres across the capital are bracing themselves for further funding cuts, after it emerged that London Councils is considering scrapping a £26.4 million scheme that supports arts and voluntary organisations across the city.

All 49 arts companies funded through the London Boroughs Grants Scheme – including the Tricycle Theatre, Tamasha, Clean Break, Oily Cart, the Orange Tree and the Independent Theatre Council – have been written to by London Councils, warning them it cannot guarantee funding beyond March 2011, despite the fact the current agreements are due to run until late 2012.

The move marks yet another blow to the sector, which is expecting funding from other sources – such as Arts Council England and direct local government support – to be cut in the coming months. All ACE-funded organisations have already been told to prepare for 10% cuts next year.

London Councils is the umbrella body for local authorities in the capital and raises money from individual boroughs, which is then allocated to voluntary sector projects across the city. Of the total pot of £26.4 million, around £3 million is given every year to arts organisations. According to London Councils, it is considering “repatriating” the £26.4 million to individual London boroughs.

London Councils Grants Committee chair Steve Bullock explained: “Circumstances are very different now to when the programme was last reviewed five years ago. In the light of these tough economic times, many boroughs feel that they are in a better place to decide how the money should be spent locally, especially as this will vary from borough to borough.

“We will be reviewing the grants scheme over the next few months to make sure that the money is being used in the most effective way for voluntary groups and boroughs alike.”

However, ITC director Charlotte Jones warned the very thing that makes London Councils’ funding so important is it supports companies working across the whole of London, often with under-served groups or areas.

She also warned that while some councils have indicated they would ring-fence the repatriated money for cultural and voluntary activities, there is no guarantee they will.

Jones told The Stage: “London Councils are a unique funder for the arts in London because they enable the particular skills of particular artists to be distributed right across the capital. Many of the projects they fund are genuinely London-wide.

“The pot of money for culture has decreased considerably over the years. But the key thing is not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Clearly, the individual councils have been unhappy for many years with London Councils as a body, but they don’t see what is going on on the front line and what is actually being done with the money, which has real value.”

Lucy Perman, executive director for Clean Break, which receives £57,500 a year to produce theatre and arts courses for female offenders, warned the loss of London Councils support would “really jeopardise” the future of the programme.

She added: “We work, on average, with women from 25 of the London boroughs. The funding enables us to really reach out to women pan-London. And it’s not just the money that would be a problem if it goes, it’s the practicalities of having to set up a commissioning agreement with more than one borough.”

Her concerns were echoed by Kristine Landon-Smith, artistic director of Tamasha, who warned that if funding were to be cut, “ambitious projects that are already underway in enriching new artists, new audiences and London’s diverse community will stall midway as a direct result”.

Many of the organisations funded by London Councils are based in outer London boroughs, which receive less money from central government. One such is the Broadway Theatre in Barking, which uses its grant of £88,748 over four years to fund outreach work to other outer London areas and commission in-house shows.

Its artistic director Karena Johnson added: “The organisations that London Councils support tend to be organisations that don’t already get a lot of funding from elsewhere. It allows smaller organisations to be able to increase their reach. It would be a real loss. If the funding didn’t exist any more, that would have a huge effect on our business.”

London Councils has said it will make a final decision on the future of the London Boroughs Grants Scheme by December.

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