A challenge from councillors to last month’s decision on the allocation of grants to Leeds arts organisations was voted down yesterday (Monday, 23rd April). As expected.
The Leeds City Council list published here a month ago now stands. And at least one local arts organisation with cash-flow problems will have been rushing to the bank this morning to sort out the financial difficulties apparently caused by the delay in ratifying the decision.
Who knows? Not sure they should be.
Because the debate at yesterday’s Scrutiny Committee meeting ahead of the 5-4 vote (which went depressingly predictably along party lines) revealed some interesting facts about the way arts funding is managed in Leeds.
When do us councillors get to have our say?
Towards the end of the debate Cllr Javaid Aktar (Lab. Hyde Park and Woodhouse) asked a very reasonable question. He wanted to know why a popular community organisation in his ward – Hyde Park Unity Day – was getting only £6,250 over three years when other organisations were receiving 100 times that amount and more.
Cllr Aktar was advised by the chair of the committee that this was not the occasion to query individual allocations.
“When would have been a good occasion to query them then?”, the chair was asked.
Because they way things work at the moment councillors don’t get to have a say in where this arts cash goes. No chance to speak up for the relative merits of arts organisations in their ward ahead of the decision. No chance to query the decision on who’s getting the money once the decision has been made.
So, if you’re a councillor who believes that it’s not right, for example, that nearly three quarters of the arts cash pie goes to the “Big Four” organisations (you know who they are – no? they’re here), when do you get to have your say? You don’t.
If you’re a councillor who thinks the visual arts are under-represented in Leeds compared to theatre and dance, and you want to fight for cash for a new organisation being set up in your ward along the lines of East Street Arts, what’s the official channel you use to do it? It appears there isn’t one.
If you’re a councillor (or a member of the public) who wants to see the bigger picture – about how much money a particular Leeds arts organisation gets from ALL sources – like the Council’s new Leeds Inspired arts funding stream, or from the national Arts Council – where do you go to get that information?
You don’t. You’d think it would be here in the council report accompanying the decision on this stream of arts funding. But it isn’t. The bigger picture – the one that’s needed so everything becomes transparent – doesn’t exist anywhere.
Anyone checking if we’re getting value for money?
When you look at some of the arts organisations being funded by the Council, you’re talking about very large sums of taxpayers’ money – £2m over three years going to Opera North and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, for example.
So you’d expect that systems would be in place so that councillors can check (on behalf of us taxpayers) that the money is being well spent. So as to reassure us that we’re getting value for money for our cash.
Are the systems in place? Nope.
Which is a bit surprising. Because recommendations were made last year that one way this value-for-money check could be carried out would be to have councillors sitting on the management boards of those arts organisations that get a good whack of taxpayers’ money.
Has anything been done about implementing the recommendations? Nope. Have any councillors been officially allocated to these arts organisations? Nope.
The meeting heard that council officials are apparently going to start asking the arts organisations nicely about it all some time in the future – AFTER the money has been handed over.
Is it just me, or isn’t it a bit odd that our elected representatives have no direct say in where all this money goes, no access to the full information they need to see what’s being spent where on the arts in Leeds, and have no role in checking whether the money spent represents good value for us citizens of Leeds?
Isn’t it even odder that our elected representatives are happy with the situation as it is, with their popular power handed over to unelected officials? They must be. Or they’d change it. Baffling.