Objections to Leeds arts grants decision voted down. Everybody happy? Hmmm…

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.

Everybody happy?

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.

No answer.

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.

Weird, no?

Partial picture

It works this way because this is one of those decisions that councillors have handed over (or delegated in council-speak) to “the experts” – to paid members of the council’s staff.

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?

There was another interesting point raised at yesterday’s meeting.

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.


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6 Responses to Objections to Leeds arts grants decision voted down. Everybody happy? Hmmm…

  1. Mark Smith says:

    Surely the role of councillors is to set the overall strategic direction and the role of council officers is to apply those decisions on a case by case basis?

    So in terms of the strategic questions of the type of organisation that is funded – sector, size, geography etc. – should be set down by the councillors.

    But surely we should then have an impartial process which allocates money on a case-by-case basis?

    Otherwise are we not in danger of having a process which is long and cumbersome (do councillors have the time and / or expertise to go through hundreds of pages of applications?), subject to parochial self-interest (funding organisations which match the personal prejudices of individual councillors and / or are located in their wards) and subject to conflict of interests – especially if more councillors are on boards?

    My final point would be surely there are other ways of monitoring performance than having a councillor on the board. Don’t the council require organisations to evidence what they are doing with the money given. If not, they should. But I’m not sure just having a councillor on the board would suddenly mean all the money would be spent wisely.

  2. Wasn’t suggesting that councillors should go through applications one by one, but it might make sense to have a stage when (on our behalf) they can look at, comment on and ask the officers about the decisions/allocations/recommendations proposed and the reasons for them without having to go to a “call-in”. Like what happens with planning applications, for example.

    Or maybe it should be a panel of 10 ratepayers who should be called in to give the proposed decision the nod.

    Agree that there are other ways of monitoring performance. The council’s officers are no doubt scrupulous in assessing each organisation’s activities against a set of, erm, robust and meaningful criteria. Now you mention it, it would be fun to see one of those assessments. I wonder if they’re published. I wonder if councillors get to see them.

    And agree too that having a councillor on the board won’t guarantee anything, but if my extended family gave me £2m to invest in a company on their behalf I’d feel some obligation to personally keep a close eye on it and do my best to make sure they got the return they expected/deserved.

    Still, I bet both the arts orgs involved and the council’s officers would be happier without a meddling councillor on board.

  3. Or can I ask the question again without a spelling mistake?
    Out of interest what measures would you deem useful for determining value?

    • Not wanting to avoid the question, but in order to have an opinion about the measures one has to agree with the aim of the grants in the first place.

      I’m a bit jaundiced about the whole operation. How did we get from the idea of a small, temporary state arts set-up (where string quartets were bused in to wartime factory canteens) to being saddled for life with cultural behemoths that soak up endless amounts of public money because it’s unthinkable that they be left to sink or swim?

      And then we have to call in the local universities to help us collect the right data to measure the “social and economic value” of those organisations – even though we all know we are going to carry on funding them indefinitely?

      • spot, nurture and retain talent (tick ☺)
      • remove barriers to enable all to participate in cultural activity (tick ☺)
      • contribute to the distinctiveness of the cultural offer in the city (tick ☺)
      • inspire the communities of Leeds and be inspired by them (tick ☺)

  4. Aesop says:

    The reason for delegated decisions is to take responsibility from the few to the many. The theory being the more people involved the less chance of corruption etc.

    So where historically you had key members of the Corporation making the decisions and council workers delivering them we now have councillors providing governance to the decisions of council workers. Does this work? Well IMO no.

    We now have a system where the only real difference between parties is the quality of their governance. When was the last time you saw a real party political manifesto for Leeds? And has there been any noticeable structural change in how council workers operate?

    On the latter point I think Tom Riordan has made a mark with the best city in the UK vision. But then you see things like more grey clad buldings being approved or an emerging city centre transport that is banal. And most ridiculously a consultation on fortnightly bin collections when there is tonnes of empirical evidence from other councils who did it years ago.

    This is why the mayoral question is too one dimensional. We either need a strong leader with council workers delivering to that agenda or we need massive reform to the local civil service if the current system remains in situ. The aim of the reform should be to enable (apologies for the bullsheet bingo coming up) the council to become an ideas factory as well as a delivery machine. It should enable the best local specialists to be in the key decision making roles in the council.

    • Good point about when was the last time there was a real party political manifesto for Leeds. There are, apparently, no local issues apart from the big scheme “best city” stuff.

      The “ideas factory” makes perfect sense too. Defenders of the current system would say, of course, that this is what organisations like the Leeds Initiative and the Leeds City Region (with their mushrooming panels of “local specialists”) do. Trouble is those panels are packed with the usual suspects with their own vested interests.

      I’ve recently come across something called “demarchy”, which has local decisions taken by randomly selected groups of decision makers. That would avoid those pesky vested interests.

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