Oxford arts organisations fear cuts in local council shake-up

Oxford Playhouse, which is joining forces with other Oxford arts organisations to produce the new Offbeat Festival next year. Photo: Wikipedia Oxford Playhouse, which has joined forces with other Oxford arts organisations to warn against plans to abolish Oxford City Council. Photo: Wikipedia
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Cultural organisations in Oxford could be at risk if proposals to abolish Oxford City Council go ahead, arts leaders have warned.

Industry leaders, including the chief executive of Oxford Playhouse, Louise Chantal, have written a letter expressing concerns over the proposed changes to local government.

The changes would see Oxford City Council, Oxfordshire County Council, and four other local authorities abolished and replaced with a single unitary county council for Oxfordshire.

A letter signed by 16 heads of culture organisations, also including Oxford Playmaker, Modern Art Oxford and Arts at the Old Fire Station, argues the changes could have “a significant impact on the cultural life of the city”.

Oxford City Council councillors have also voiced concern at the proposals, arguing that a single authority would be “too large and remote”, covering a population that could reach an estimated 900,000 by 2031.

However, Oxfordshire County Council has claimed the move would save £20 million in running costs of the six councils per year, which could allow more money to be spent on the arts.

The letter from cultural leaders, to the Oxford Mail, reads: “Despite the pressures caused by funding cuts from central government, Oxford City Council has continued to invest in culture and the arts.

“The city invests £285,000 a year in 14 core cultural partners – money which helps to leverage several million pounds worth of partnership investment from a diverse range of public and private sources including Arts Council England, charitable trusts and business, many of whom require local support to be in place.”

The letter goes on to argue that “world-class culture and educational opportunities” are more important than party politics.

It ends: “We are concerned that a change to a county-wide unitary authority might put at risk the wonderful arts and cultural organisations we are lucky to enjoy.”

Councillor Christine Simm, board member for culture and communities at Oxford City Council, argues that the city of Oxford is different from the surrounding districts, which are rural with country towns.

She said: “We have a very diverse population with a whole range of needs, and our cultural strategy is based on the idea we want people from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible to be consumers and be involved in creating cultural artefacts.

“A district unitary authority would have no understanding of the vibrancy of culture in Oxford.”

Responding to the concerns, an Oxfordshire County Council spokeswoman said: “We absolutely recognise the importance of the arts and culture for Oxford and Oxfordshire.

“The proposal for a unitary council is designed to increase the opportunity for local decisions on funding of voluntary organisations, including the arts in Oxford.

“By saving £20 million a year on the running costs of six councils, there will be more money to spend on the things residents really want – including the arts.”