SOLT/TMA chief latest to warn on local council cuts

Julian Bird, the new chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and Theatrical Management Association, has become the latest senior arts figure to warn that local funding cuts could pose an even greater threat to the theatre sector than the forthcoming reductions in support from Arts Council England.

Speaking to The Stage in his first major interview since taking over at SOLT/TMA, Bird has spoken of dangers facing regional theatres across the UK due to reductions in government subsidy.

“With my TMA hat on,” he said, “the single biggest thing is what is going to happen with funding cuts. The story that is much-written about is what will the arts council do on March 31, but the largely unwritten story is what is already happening with local authorities. And whereas, as an industry, the arts industry can campaign very well on a national level with national government, to negotiate with every single council across the country is very difficult.

“Where we are collectively as an industry in April – once we know the arts council deliberations, once we know year one of what local authorities are doing – I think we really need to take stock and say what do we do from here?”

Bird added that the TMA planned to develop toolkits for members to help them deal with local authorities, and offer training for artistic directors in negotiating with them.

He warned that the cuts being made by local government could be a bigger threat to the industry than central government reductions – echoing fears expressed by politicians from all three main parties at the recent State of the Arts conference, and this week by former culture secretary Chris Smith (see front page).

“It could be [a bigger threat than ACE cuts]. That’s the risk, because it’s one of those things that happens year on year and before you know it, in three or four years’ time the grants have gone completely. The arts council process is very open and transparent because it’s done across the whole of England, at one point. With local authorities it’s not that each local authority isn’t transparent, but it’s very hard to get a handle on the whole picture across the country.”

Bristol has become the latest city council to announce proposed cuts, following Liverpool and Manchester, while other authorities in North Yorkshire and Somerset have imposed severe reductions.

“If you add it all together it’s a really worrying position,” added Bird. “This is really worrying on a number of levels. The theatre industry employs a lot of people in the UK so it’s an employment issue, and it’s an economic impact issue for the areas in which these theatres are located because any theatre that has ever done an economic impact survey will tell you that when people go to the theatre, they go to the pub, a restaurant – they spend money in the locality. Thirdly, [the problem] is what happens to a town, city or community when you take out the artistic hub of it. In four or five years’ time, what does that place look like? I think it’s a very different place to live.”

For the full interview with Julian Bird, see this week’s print edition of The Stage.

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster