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UK arts sector sustains first cuts by new coalition government

Last week brought the announcement of a £61m cut to the budget of the UK Department of Culture, Media & Sport - roughly equating to a 3% reduction in the money available to DCMS-funded organisations.

PMSE users will be watching the new administration closely as it continues to define its policy with regard to arts and live entertainment, writes David Davies. Jeremy Hunt (pictured) is the new man at the top of the arts tree, having taken on the post of Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. A relative newcomer to high-level politics, Hunt made a career in PR and directory publishing before becoming Conservative MP for South West Surrey in 2005 and shadow culture secretary in 2007.

Monday 24 May saw the first stage in what many commentators expect to be a series of cuts to the UK arts budget. While most DCMS-funded organisations will sustain a 3% funding drop under the initial wave of cutbacks, national arts development body Arts Council England (ACE) has to grapple with a 4% reduction.

“We all knew this year would be tough,” said ACE chair Dame Liz Forgan. “We do not understand why we have received a higher percentage cut than other DCMS-funded bodies. […] The Arts Council has already trimmed its own budgets by £4 million in 2011/11, so this takes our total reduction this year to £23 million. We will do our utmost to minimise the impact on the frontline, but we cannot guarantee that there will be no effect.”

In the longer-term, there are many potential points of tension between the new government and the arts/cultural spheres. During the last parliament, the Tories repeatedly expressed concerns about the size of the BBC, so the organisation could be one of the department’s major talking points during the next few years. Hunt and colleagues have also conveyed reservations about the scope of powers now held by communications regulator Ofcom, which were further swelled during the recently-implemented Digital Economy Act.

Despite these moves, Hunt and culture minister Ed Vaizey have received a reasonably warm response from the artistic communities so far. In particular, Hunt’s first public speech since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power was well-received. Whilst admitting the challenges of the wider financial landscape, he insisted that culture would “not be singled out as a soft target”, adding: “It is the most incredible privilege to do what I am doing. I want you to know that this government’s commitment to the arts goes right to the top.”

For PMSE (performance making & special events) users specifically, it’s very much a case of ‘wait and watch’. While the shape of future spectrum access for PMSE wireless system users has become much clearer during the last six months, the issue of funding to help meet transitions costs is far from being resolved. The prospect of live sound professionals, theatre companies and many other delaying new wireless system purchases until a funding scheme is agreed means that this is likely to be top priority for industry groups like the BEIRG Steering Committee when they conduct conversations with the new government.

“We will have to wait and see,” says Alan March, Sennheiser UK business development specialist and a prime mover behind the BEIRG Pro User Group on the spectrum issue. “There are sympathetic voices within Government, such as Vince Cable and Ed Vaizey, so that is encouraging. On the other hand, the general message coming out of Government so far has been ‘cuts, cuts, cuts.’

“We hope to be meeting with representatives of the new government soon, and we will be continuing to press our case for an adequate compensation scheme for PMSE users. We will also stress the massive contribution that the sector will make to the 2012 Olympics. Rest assured – we are not going away and will continue to press for the best possible solution for the industry.”