Newcastle arts leaders condemn ‘redundant’ consultation on cuts

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Theatre leaders in Newcastle have described a recent public consultation meeting about the proposed 100% cuts to arts funding from the local council as “frustrating” and “redundant”.

The event, which was held by Newcastle City Council on January 16, saw industry representatives and members of the public discuss the impact of the cuts and then provide written feedback to the council officers who were present.

However, no elected councillors – who are responsible for decision-making – attended the meeting, which theatre leaders have claimed prevented meaningful debate concerning the proposals.

Newcastle Theatre Royal chief executive Philip Bernays, who attended the meeting, said: “It was almost like a creative workshop, which is why it was very frustrating. I was on a table with six other people. Someone made notes and we talked about a number of issues, but we didn’t talk directly to any councillors because they weren’t there.”

He added: “There was no significant debate with the council officers – their job was to tell us what the proposals were and then to sit there while we discussed them among ourselves. It was very frustrating and didn’t feel meaningful.”

Providing written feedback to councillors, said Bernays, is “not the same” as having a live debate, which was what he and others had hoped for.

He added that although cultural organisations in the city were involved in a dialogue with the local authority about funding cuts, ordinary members of the public did not have the same level of access to the council.

“The council’s website is almost impenetrable in terms of trying to find a meaningful way to find out about the budget and then consult back – it’s very bureaucratic,” he added.

Tess Denman-Cleaver, artistic director of Newcastle-based theatre company Tender Buttons, also attended the meeting and criticised its format: “The consultation and the process itself felt redundant. People didn’t feel they were being listened to because there weren’t any councillors present and because the consultation wasn’t well advertised.”

“A lot of what happened in that meeting and the atmosphere and anger that was felt isn’t something that you can transcribe, so there was a worry that the councillors weren’t present to see how this is affecting people,” she added.

Newcastle City Council announced last November that it planned to completely remove funding to all arts organisations in the city, including Northern Stage, Newcastle Theatre Royal and Live Theatre, by 2016.

The city council’s proposals have been put out to public consultation, which will run until February 2013. After this, a draft budget will be presented to the local authority’s full council on March 6.

Tony Durcan, director of culture, libraries and lifelong learning at Newcastle City Council, said: “This event was part of the city’s biggest ever budget consultation, where we listen to the public’s views on our proposals and then make sure their comments inform our final budget documents. We must keep the discussions as focused as possible, and we have found that having councillors at events can result in political debates that distract from the issues at hand.

“People have already had a chance to discuss the budget with elected members at ward committee meetings held throughout the city. Events are not the only ways we are engaging with the public on our budget proposals, and people can have their say by writing to us, or clicking on our website at www.letstalknewcastle.co.uk.”