Anthony Hilton: How takeovers choke the arts when you move away from the ‘big smoke’

Funding is under pressure, and all arts organisations have to work harder to get private-sector support

As those of us who work in the capital grappled with the impact of the Tube strikes this week, one sharp-tongued observer noted that on the plus side it would give people in London an experience of what public transport is like on a daily basis in the rest of the country.

A bit harsh perhaps on the transport systems in Manchester, and some of our other big cities, but to the point in underlining how much of the investment in this country goes to the capital and how little to the regions.

Actually, I worry more about it in areas like the arts than in transport. Monday found me at a board meeting of Dance East, an ambitious Ipswich-based contemporary dance company which  does great work but could not survive without the funding of the arts council and local government. Obviously this funding is under pressure, and all arts organisations have to work harder to get private-sector support.

The trouble is that the changes in the British economy over the past 30 years have deprived the regions of the very organisations which could provide that support.

Until the Thatcher era, there were a string of stock-market-listed companies headquartered in Ipswich – Fisons, Ransomes, Eastern Electricity, Pauls and Whites, Tolly Cobbold – who could be relied upon to be helpful towards projects which benefited the local community with money and support.

They were, after all, in the area where the directors and their families lived. But in the past few decades all have been taken over, and the head office moved to London or abroad, and those top jobs have disappeared.

The same thing has happened in all the other regional cities too – Norwich, Bristol, Nottingham, Leeds and the others have lost their corporate head offices. But the real loss is they no longer have local business leaders who identify with and have the autonomy and the ability to support local projects.

Even when the companies remain big employers, those in charge are too often running back offices and administrative centres which do not have their own marketing departments and do not have the authority to sponsor even a local charity run. It is a reminder of the true cost of takeovers. The benefits, if there are any, accrue to distant shareholders; the costs fall on local communities and undermine the vibrancy and viability of the towns in which they were based.

So it is all well and good for Whitehall-based governments to say arts organisations across the country should raise more of their own funds. The fact is, however, that if it is tough to do so in London, it is well-nigh impossible in many of the regions.

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