skip to main content

Rampant inequality, public services slashed to the bone, health and social care in crisis, bankrupt local authorities and a treacherous mountain of national debt stand high on the present government’s list of headline achievements. The Tory Party’s threadbare economic legacy is set to bedevil whoever wins the next election.

An incoming Labour administration would face profound challenges on the home front, including those rooted in the failed experiment of austerity, and geopolitical threats not seen for a generation. At some point, however, it would need to address the matter of ‘Bread and Roses’, the need to feed the soul as well as the body.

What funding has been lost

Arts funding has seen a dramatic and damaging decline since the Tories came to power in 2010. During the Coalition government’s term (2010-15), the overall budget for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was reduced by almost a quarter from £1.4 billion per annum to £1.1 billion.

The downward funding trend has continued since, with grant-in-aid and lottery money to the arts falling in real terms by £178 million between 2010 and 2023. Arts Council England’s (ACE) budget was trimmed by around 30% over the same period, an all-too-clear reflection of the government’s ideological drive to shrink the size of the state.

The arts have fared little better under the devolved administrations. Having reversed its plan to cut Creative Scotland’s budget by 10% in February 2023, the Scottish government reimposed its decision seven months later to leave the funding body £6.6 million poorer.

Arts Council Northern Ireland’s government grant fell by a staggering 63% between 2010 and 2020. The Arts Council for Wales has also received real-terms budget cuts of around 21%, with Mid Wales Opera and the National Theatre of Wales among those organisations bumped from its latest list of regularly funded clients.

The damage done

Measured in terms of overall government spending, the amounts ‘saved’ are vanishingly small; the damage they have caused to individual arts organisations and practitioners, however, from English National Opera to grassroots promoters, contracted orchestral players to freelancers, has been enormous.

Local authority arts funding in England, Wales and Scotland lost around a third of its value between 2010 and 2018, while councils in Northern Ireland reduced arts spending by 16%. Many local authorities have since made deeper cuts to arts funding: Suffolk County Council, for example, began this year by announcing cuts to all core funding for arts and heritage organisations, worth £528,000 per annum, before securing additional government money and offering a one-off pot of £500,000 open to bids from all of Suffolk’s arts organisations.

A conscious choice by government

The statistics bear witness to the government’s conscious choice to downgrade arts funding across the UK. Diminished public money has inevitably undermined the work of world-class arts institutions, multiplied the number of cultural ‘cold spots’ and, despite breezy talk from cabinet ministers about levelling up, narrowed rather than widened access to the arts.

Orchestral musicians, whether contracted or freelance, have certainly been hit hard by the combined effects of funding cuts, pandemic lockdowns and a performing arts sector reeling from the increased costs of doing business. Many have been affected by ACE’s decision to make English National Opera’s future funding conditional on the company’s relocation from London to Greater Manchester. Others have been rocked by the removal of Britten Sinfonia from the Arts Council’s most-favoured list of National Portfolio Organisations, the loss of Glyndebourne Touring Opera to ACE funding cuts and the partial replacement of Northern Ballet Sinfonia with recorded music for the company’s 2024 touring programme.

The need to boost spending

MU General Secretary Naomi Pohl calls on the next government to boost spending on the arts. The music industry generates large returns to the UK economy from the public investment it receives, contributes to the common good and enhances the nation’s collective happiness. Those conditions have been undermined by sustained funding cuts, leaving the arts and the country poorer.

She said: “It’s obvious that we need a bigger pot of arts funding. There are so many things arts organisations are now expected to do, for all the right reasons, from music education and outreach projects to work in healthcare. But there’s a lot less money for them to do it.

“We want to see the music sector diversify and for classical music to become more diverse in all sorts of ways. That’s made so much harder by year-on-year funding cuts and by the Arts Council’s attempts to spread less money to different areas of the country and to more diverse groups.”

Clarion call

Given the impoverished state of the nation’s finances, the MU does not expect Labour to set ambitious spending commitments ahead of the general election. Yet the fact that Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Thangam Debbonaire was once a professional cellist and understands how the orchestral economy works suggests that, in government, she would push for increased investment in the sector.

Debbonaire sounded a clarion call at the Labour Party Conference last October to “fire up the engines of our creative economy” and enrich lives through music, art and culture, while announcing what would be the first ever national cultural infrastructure plan.

“Thangam’s so passionate about music,” observes Naomi Pohl. “We’d love to see her in government, especially after having several Secretaries of State who, to put it politely, appear to have no enthusiasm for music.”

The cumulative effects of deep funding cuts and the general disinterest in music shown since 2010 by a dozen Tory culture secretaries have fallen hard on the orchestral workplace. Naomi cites the example of orchestras holding vacant posts open to avoid the costs of contracting full-time players. “It’s a really sad state of affairs when organisations say they can’t afford to put on productions because they’re too expensive and will mean they lose money. We have to hope for a change of government this year and more money to come for arts funding. Until then, we must hold on to what we have.”

The need for strategic investment

A prudent increase in public arts funding, she adds, would enable orchestras to restore their finances, develop bold new projects, strengthen equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and play their part in building flourishing communities.

“We’re calling for strategic investment in the arts, not lavish spending. The orchestral sector has been helped by the higher rates of Orchestra Tax Relief, which have been extended until April 2025.

“Any incoming government cannot remove that without causing serious problems in a sector that’s already struggling. At the very least, they need to keep it in place at the higher level.”

Reassessing the role of Arts Council England

Beyond lobbying a Labour government for greater public investment in the arts, the Musicians’ Union calls for a post-election debate about the purpose of Arts Council England.

Naomi Pohl believes that ACE’s latest round of National Portfolio Organisation funding and broader Let’s Create strategy for 2020-30 have delivered mixed messages about access and excellence, especially so given the funding cuts it made to high-calibre organisations with strong track records in outreach work.

“The debate has become too focused on a choice between access and excellence,” she comments. “We want the Arts Council to promote both. Yes, we want to see greater diversity; yes, the arts shouldn’t be London-centric and staffed mainly by white, middle-class, privileged people. But we have to find a way to deliver greater access and diversity without destroying our great orchestras and opera companies.”

Funding and music education

Chris Walters, the MU’s National Organiser for Health and Wellbeing says that cuts to music education budgets and the unequal, often patchy distribution of money for music in state schools reflect the Tory government’s failure to recognise the true value of music as part of a broad and enriching curriculum.

England’s network of music education hubs, introduced by government in 2012 to address nationwide inequalities in children’s access to music provision, have operated on standstill funding for a decade and struggled to narrow the ‘musical divide’ they were created to close.

“Funding for the hubs has not kept pace with inflation and the cost of what they spend money on has risen,” comments Walters. The funding streams that feed music education, he adds, have become unnecessarily complex and weak under the Tories. “When I was learning, most schools’ music services came under their local authority and schools often had healthy budgets for music.

“But now the funding comes from so many different streams, all of which have been reduced. The net result is that learning a musical instrument is now not really accessible unless your parents can pay for it. So there’s been a big generational change which is leading to a social mobility issue in our professional orchestras and West End bands and session bands.”

Broader, richer curriculum

If elected to government, Labour’s nationwide cultural infrastructure plan and Shadow Education Minister Bridget Phillipson’s vision for greater emphasis on music as part of a ‘broader, richer curriculum’ will no doubt be challenged by competing calls on the public purse.

“We know that Labour wants to improve things,” observes Naomi Pohl. “The will is certainly there even if the money for arts funding might not be straight off the bat. We have to believe that a Labour government will put more money in. If they don’t, quite frankly, we’re stuffed!”

Photo ofAndrew Stewart
Thanks to

Andrew Stewart

Andrew writes for The Times, The Guardian, Classical Music and BBC Music Magazine, among others. He is also Director of Southwark Voices.

Continue reading