the threat of the ‘greater south east’
I am constantly being reminded that it’s not so much the election that we should be mindful about but the following three months that lead up to a Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn – assuming we have a government by then – (but thats another matter.) We will need well rehearsed arguments for the usefulness of the arts. Ones that go past ‘we cant take another cut’. All the more so if DCMS goes and with UK Theatre suggesting that theatre production has actually grown in the past five years, despite the cuts.
But that’s not my point here. My particular concern is that the increasing way in which funders and policy makers speak about the Greater South East is going to disproportionately affect a whole swath of the country. That in an unspoken attempt to ‘rebalance investment’ the South East will be passed over in favour of more distant provinces as if London and the entire South East and Eastern regions -now one area – behave as one coherent ecology. Try telling that to the people of the former coalfields of West Kent (remember them?) or the villages of Willingham and Bluntisham in the Fenlands. They, and pretty much every where else outside the M25 feel, behave and want different things. Many of them are suburban or market towns that are too small to sustain an arts centre but too large to benefit from the community networks of a village. More than this. The old Eastern region gets the least treasury investment with the old South East not far behind. There is already a cultural imbalance.
Yes there is a small elite living in the region who schlep up to the Royal Opera House or the National for a show. But thats true of every part of the Country. When i lived in Nottingham my next door neighbour had a season ticket to Covent Garden. And anyway we cant surely base a national arts policy on the behaviour of that elite. You only have to look at how people vote – and yes, i would include UKIP with its heartland of Essex and North Kent – to know that these communities are radically different and need particular and distinct strategies and provision. Indeed you could argue that it is, in part, the lack of a clear counter narrative that has allowed UKIP to flourish. We need to invest in cultural engagement with people everywhere.
More than this. The notion, espoused in the ROCK report, that if you live within ‘easy reach of London’ this should be the cultural offer is patently nonsense. Leaving aside the cost and logistics involved in getting in and out of London in the evening I checked. To get to any number of towns along the south coast takes over two hours and is impossible after 10.30 at night. Yet that far flung community of, say, Leicester – banished as it is to the East Midlands – is an hour away. No, proximity to London is too crude a measure.
I know that many will have a view of the South East being stuffed full of affluent commuters and stock brokers spending the weekends polishing their hunting boots and therefore ‘who cares’. Well firstly its ‘Great Art for Everyone’ not just the people we like and anyway this caricature is no more true than Yorkshire is full of people wearing flat caps dragging whippets behind them to the pub. Teachers and nurses and bike repairers are getting paid the same where ever they live. Having lived here for 10 years now I can attest to the fact that the region is full of good and purposeful people trying, like us all, to get by. Many of whom value the localness of a cultural offer.
It cannot just be about taking work made in London or Hull or Bristol and touring it to us. You can tell the health of a community by the stories it tells itself. Art needs to be made everywhere. The concerns of at least some artists need to be the same as the audiences of our communities. It’s easy to be left wing and perform to people like us in the established subsidised venues, it is harder and more important to take that work to the Tory heartland of the culturally impoverished areas in the SE.
We need to rehearse who we are, what it is to live in the shadow of a ‘world’ city. Explore how communities on the edge of New York and Paris describe themselves, how they organise and advocate their particular-ness. We need to invest time and resources. Listen and hear. Breath the same air as the communities we serve. Find our own solutions and raise our ambition.