What makes a city a city? I mean, in the sense of a particular, distinctive city. Its people, certainly, its geography, landscape and architecture, also its economy and politics. But what really sets a city apart from its neighbours is its culture – that network of traditions, customs, institutions and habits, most of them with complex roots in the past, that give the place meaning to its inhabitants, and a distinctive image to visitors from outside.
I mentioned institutions because it’s cultural institutions that in their various ways collect together or typify a city’s cultures. An obvious example in Swansea is its Premier League football club, the pre-eminent symbol of the city around the world. For residents the club is a source of pride and focus of loyalty. And it’s more than that. The team is cherished for its characteristic features: its flowing and elegant style of play, its doggedness in overcoming past failures to rise through the divisions, its easy embracing of players from around the world. It’s not fanciful to see these same features in other aspects of Swansea life, like the acceptance of refugees and migrants from abroad.
Even more significant carriers of the city’s distinctive cultures, though, are our public institutions. This is because many of them have even deeper historical roots than the football club, and because they are public – that is, they are owned by all of us, they belong to every citizen equally. Swansea Museum, founded in 1841, is the oldest museum in Wales and tells the story of the city and its region, from Neanderthal times to the present day, to residents and visitors alike. The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, founded in 1911, is a gallery of much more than local significance. Around it, and around the Swansea School of Art, has grown a network of other institutions and individual artists that have made Swansea what is arguably the most lively and thriving centre for the visual arts in Wales. The performing arts, too, have prospered over the years, in large part thanks to the framework of organisations like the Grand Theatre, the Brangwyn Hall, Taliesin and a host of smaller societies and companies. Swansea would not be Swansea without all these bodies. It would be a different, poorer and less distinctive place.
But many of these public institutions are now in grave danger of failure or even extinction. And Swansea Council is in large part to blame.
Of course the Council is not the chief villain. That is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. George Osborne, a much more committed and extreme ideologue than Jeremy Corbyn, has taken full advantage of the financial crash of 2008 to push his own radical austerity agenda, transferring wealth from the poor and precarious classes to the rich, from the young to the (voting) old, from the ex-industrial cities and towns to the leafy shires. Local government has been one of his main victims. Thanks to central government cuts over the last few years Councils have been swiftly stripped of their ability to serve their citizens effectively.
Even so, Councils, challenged though they are by cuts not of their own making, do still have choices. Swansea has made the wrong ones. It has recently decided that its ‘cultural services’ will suffer a grossly disproportionate slice of cuts over the next three years. Most of its cultural institutions will lose at least half of their existing (already reduced) budgets.
What will be the result? Take Swansea Museum. Next month it is due to lose £40,000. In 2017-18 it will suffer an additional loss of £140,000, and in the following year another £140,000. These are severe reductions, for a museum already run on a shoestring (and remember that it’s already much smaller than sister museums in similar cities in England and Scotland). It is not hard to imagine what the effects will be. The Museum’s chief cost is staff. Many of them will be lost. That in turn will lead to reduced hours, fewer exhibitions, lost expertise, curtailed collecting, and reduced learning and outreach services. In short, Swansea Museum will become an empty shell of its former self, incapable of adding much value to the city’s well-being, its economic prosperity or its civic identity.
Other cultural services will suffer in very similar ways. Last month young musicians held a protest outside the Guildhall to draw attention to the planned removal of Council support for music teaching in Swansea schools. Swansea has enjoyed for many years a great reputation for encouraging musical talent among young people. Despite a partial Council climb-down after the protest, that tradition is now in danger. The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, due to reopen in the autumn after its long closure for modernisation and extension, has been exempted from severe reductions, but only for the time being: there is no guarantee that it too will not in time be subject to similar huge cuts. Similar fates await other cultural services, such as the Grand Theatre, the Dylan Thomas Exhibition, Plantasia, the West Glamorgan Archive Service, and a range of leisure and sporting facilities. The future of the public library service, the best used and most cherished of all the Council’s elective services, remains unknown.
Like some other local authorities Swansea Council is searching for private ‘partners’ to shoulder the burden of providing most or some of these services. Until 24 March you have the chance to declare your interest, if you have deep pockets or fancy yourself as a cultural entrepreneur, and have an urge, in the Council’s words, to ‘in invest in, develop and manage these facilities and services on our behalf, delivering our outcomes’. It’s difficult, though, reading through the Council’s ‘Memorandum of Information’ that advertises this opportunity, to imagine companies or other organisations queuing up to compete for the privilege of helping the Council out, when they know that budgets are being cut so steeply, and that few of the services receive, or could realistically receive in future, a commercial income stream of any size. Recent research for Arts Council England found that arm’s length arrangements of this kind, with ‘trusts’ or ‘not-for-profit companies’, are doomed to fail if cutting costs and escaping commitments are the main motivations for setting them up in the first place.
How has Swansea Council got things so badly wrong?
First, although the Council’s rhetoric might suggest otherwise, I suspect that those in charge don’t in reality believe that its cultural services are truly relevant to what the Council regards as its five central priorities (safeguarding vulnerable people, improving pupil attainment, creating a vibrant and viable city centre and economy, tackling poverty, and building sustainable communities). Anyone at all familiar with, for example, Swansea Museum and the Glynn Vivian knows that in fact their staff spend a great deal of effort and energy contributing directly to virtually all of these goals. Many people know how much economic value cultural institutions add to a city. Councillors, on the other hand, seem to believe that cultural work is a disposable ‘add-on’, easily removable with little damage to the city’s essential interests. But the work that cultural services staff do with schoolchildren, with older people (for example those with dementia), and with people with disabilities certainly will be missed. So will the tourists, when there is little left of interest in the city to draw them here. So will the new employers and skilled workers the city needs to attract, if Swansea sinks into being just another featureless, ex-industrial conurbation.
The second problem is to do with a sense of proportion. Council leaders defend their decision by claiming that Swansea residents, in their responses to consultation exercises, have made it plain that they wish to see the Council prioritise spending on health and social services, not culture. On the surface this seems reasonable, setting aside the question of the desperately poor quality of consultation questionnaires, and their very low response rates – until you consider the relative amounts spent on ‘culture’ as opposed to these other areas, and the absolute amounts of money involved. The fact is that culture accounts for a very small proportion of Swansea Council’s overall budget. Money saved from a 50% cut to a small budget will do little to protect spending on education and social services. But these same sums, for the cultural services affected, are so large that their effect will be to weaken them seriously, or even destroy them.
Dr Rowan Williams, in his recent talk in Swansea on understanding poverty, distinguished four contributors to deprivation. Three of them were social and economic insecurity, domestic insecurity, and political insecurity. The fourth, no less important, was ‘cultural insecurity’. He defined it broadly as the lack of capacity to imagine a ‘good life’ or ‘pictures of alternative realities’. Important agents for combating such poverty are cultural services and institutions, which offer all citizens, rich or poor, educated or not, paths to a different or better life. Shutting these down – Dr Williams referred specifically to the threat to Swansea Museum – was certain to entrench such poverty.
What is to be done, by those who understand the true roles of cultural services in the city? The answer must be to get the Council to understand that it has made a serious mistake, one that needs to be corrected. Protests are beginning to be made. The young musicians have made their point with eloquence. Last Friday an online petition was started to gather opposition to the cuts to Swansea Museum. It attracted over 2,000 signatures in less than three days. Only expression of public dissatisfaction like these will persuade Councillors to alter their policies and avoid the wholesale destruction of what is so essential to our city.
In January 2016 the Council announced plans to redevelop parts of the city centre and the Civic Centre site. No one could argue that modernisation of the centre isn’t needed. Unfortunately, what is planned looks dreary and undistinguished – and, even worse, lacking in distinctiveness. There are some genuinely exciting features, like a research-based aquarium. But gazing at fish through glass will be a poor substitute for the museums, libraries and other facilities that we shall have lost in the meantime, if the Council has its way. After three years of these cuts it is unimaginable how Swansea could, with any credibility, ever again make a bid to be the UK City of Culture, as it did in 2013.
Without its flourishing and distinctive culture – art, football, music, rugby, books, history, theatre and much else – Swansea would be a mean and barren place. It certainly wouldn’t merit the title of ‘city’, let alone the second city of Wales.
The City and County of Swansea needs to think again about its budget.