Unions voice concerns that worst is yet to come

Equity assistant general secretary Stephen Spence
Equity assistant general secretary Stephen Spence
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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Theatre trade unions are stepping up their campaigns against the arts cuts, with the news that if the cultural industries thought they had had a hard time in the last three years, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

The word from Arts Council England sources is that while the national economy may seem to be in sight of the sunny uplands, the cultural economy is about three years behind so about where the rest of the country was in 2011 – in the valley of the shadow. Although theatres being threatened with going dark is a worry for the likes of Equity, the actors’ union, and the Writers’ Guild which represents playwrights, that is not their prime concern.

For Ellie Peers, assistant general secretary of the Writers’ Guild, the desperation to keep playhouses form going dark means that expenditure on development of new work is being diverted. It means no commissions for playwrights, no workshopping, no read-throughs - no new work, no opportunities for young talent. Too many theatres, she says, are hoping writers will be prepared to produce work for little or nothing because of their sparse budgets, and perhaps they will – “You don’t really need to be paid because you love doing it” - but why should they?

Theatres are already cutting their commissioning programmes from, say, three a year to one. Small out-of-London theatres are the worst affected, she says, where often the playhouse is the only live venue for hundreds of square miles around.

And this has a knock-on. It is the subsidised sector that produces much of the work for the commercial sector and for our hugely successful film and television productions, such huge earners for the national economy.

“So these cuts are so obviously a false economy, a mad kind of short termism,” she says.

And like reopening closed theatres, when the development structure is dismantled it’s very difficult to reconstruct it. The risk goes, “and taking those risks to put on new writing is how the theatre flourishes”.

Martin Brown, assistant general secretary of Equity, is seriously distressed by developments like Cardiff substantially withdrawing funding from its theatres, and Nottingham County Council cancelling its entire £95,000 annual grant to Nottingham Playhouse. He is afraid that if local authorities are allowed to back out of arts funding the process will never be reversed, more of a worry than the arts council’s tribulations.

“The arts councils are there to support the arts, nothing else, it’s their job. It is not for local authorities for whom costs for essential services are outstripping inflation and their income is going down. We fear we may be seeing a structural shift to the way live arts are funded”.

That alarm has not been allayed by the Budget announcement last month of up to 25% tax relief on theatre production. Although Arts Council England promised a guidance within a few days of the announcement, it is still working on it and, as I write Brown, is toiling over Equity’s response to the proposal, which is due by the end of this week. His worry is that to get the tax break producing theatres are going to have to change their business model, from a charity to a company, and the break is available to the commercial theatre as well as the subsidised sector. And what new bureaucratic processes will those theatres have to go through?

It looks as though you actually have to record a loss on a production before you can claim the tax relief, Brown says. And the worry is more fundamental: “Is it an aspect of a major shift in the way the state responds to live arts, a shift away from putting tax payers’ money into a funded sector? What would that mean for the future of funded theatre?”

Meanwhile a third theatre union, BECTU, with support from Equity and the Musicians’ Union is pressing hard for the Labour Party to include in its election manifesto statutory funding for the arts by local authorities. Their assistant general secretary, Luke Crawley, believes the idea is gaining some traction in the Labour high command. “We think that would go some way to heading off the most vicious cuts, and the way to stop threats of 100% cuts,” he says.