As the North of England's arts and culture is gutted, the London-centric press looks away

Newcastle is to cut 100% of its art funding, but the southern-dominated media can't report it.

At the end of 2011, I signed on at Newcastle City Jobcentre Plus. Because of unusually high service demand, I was given a monthly seven-minute appointment on the fourth floor, halfway up an imposing building that teemed with the freshly down-and-out. Newcastle was grey, perpetually raining, and terminally pessimistic. Down on the second floor, two of my middle-aged relatives, recently made redundant, were signing on too.

For the next six months, I regularly stood in a long queue of fellow twentysomethings, all bemoaning the system that was demonstrably failing us with a poignant sense of camaraderie. That Christmas, I went round every shop in the city centre and dropped off my CV when they began to advertise holiday vacancies; out of 27 stores, not one even called me in for an interview. This stung not just because I’d just graduated from UCL and therefore considered myself academically overqualified, but because I’d spent my university years working part-time in retail. My CV had been constructed around a Jobcentre template for the sector and I didn’t mind the unspoken criteria (often actually voiced if you got to speak to the manager) of being easily laid off in January; I just wanted enough money to return to London, which I’d been driven out of, post-graduation, by skyrocketing rent.

This story was familiar to most of those twentysomethings in the self-styled Queue of Little Hope. Like me, they were northerners who had defected to the south and been left gobsmacked by the relative levels of opportunity there. Those of us who wanted careers in the media knew that the requisite networking, the schmooze-and-boozing, the right-place-right-timing, had to be done in the big city. Unemployment in the North East was high, and wages were low. A girl that I met in the Jobcentre line, who eventually found herself employment with an advertising agency, then reluctantly picked up sex work to supplement her wage. The full-time job she’d been shunted into left her with £15 per week after bills and rent – and strip clubs were stepping up their recruitment drives in the wake of so many disillusioned, penniless female "NEETs" (young people not in education, employment or training) returning home.

Recession tales like this are now, unfortunately, fairly commonplace. But Newcastle has made the headlines in the last few weeks for one very conspicuous decision: to cut 100 per cent of its own arts funding. This sticks out as a particular example of cruelty in a city which had only recently benefited from what many lauded as a cultural regeneration (in 2011, the Turner Prize was hosted by the Baltic Gallery on the local quayside.) Councillor Nick Forbes has already defended the contentious figures behind his reasoning for them in this magazine, and conspiracies about how his own ambitions affected his decisions have been rife. But all of this reporting and speculation has been done in a tone symptomatic of how the London-dominated media speaks about the north: with little actual outrage, and a lot of head-shaking and resigned passivity in its place.

Newcastle will be a "test city" for withdrawal of all arts funding, journalists have suggested; the capital of the North East, razed of its accessible culture and its previously abundant community projects, will be a physical scar on the face of austerity Britain. A commenter on one such article accused Forbes of "martyring a city to prove a political point" – and there’s no doubt that the gravity, the total and profound finality, of 100 per cent as a quantity has attracted attention. It speaks loudly and clearly of the reality of coalition government cuts across the UK, and their often disproportionate effect on the north. When it comes to proposing real action, though, the protests are left to individual institutions in Newcastle itself, bar a few Geordie celebrities who have attempted to generate national interest in a petition they created themselves.

A comprehensive breakdown of Newcastle, presented in statistics and wildly depressing pie-charts on the local council’s website, seems like the numerical manifestation of the old adage "it’s grim up north." Just under a third of Geordie children live in poverty, with 26 per cent qualifying for free school meals. The city’s own internal inequalities are stark: the difference in male life expectancy between the relatively affluent area of South Gosforth compared to the relatively deprived area of Byker is a staggering 12.6 years. In other words, this is no place for southerners’ apathy. It is the place and the time for those with the clear media advantage to stand up for their counterparts. Some publications have been kind enough to pick Newcastle up of late, dust it off, and wonder loudly whether the city will show us all how terrible our national economic situation really is. But the overall impression remains that these particular cuts are an unfortunate but interesting social experiment to keep a sympathetic eye on, rather than a cause worth championing. The apparently politically conscious and fairly diverse cross-section of Londoners I now rub shoulders with were mostly unaware of the North East’s arts situation when I asked them this week.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly that reporters themselves are very rarely from or living in Newcastle. Northerners have always been rare in the national press, and if publications have deigned to have an actual Geordie write a piece on the latest crisis, it has almost always been as a one-off piece rather than by a regular contributor. The Guardian has a blog entitled The Northerner, as if to hammer home how out-of-place that species is in a national newspaper. And the "call to arms" type of reporting that might have dominated front pages if such cuts had been made in London are replaced by vague conceptualising, amused celebrity-chasing, and comment pieces on whether Forbes really is really enacting a self-serving strategy. Meanwhile, High Heaton Library – where my mother became the first of her family to complete an A Level assignment, down the road from my grandparents’ cramped and overcrowded council house – prepares to close its doors.

In Newcastle, where the educational output is well below the national average, accessibility to the arts is vital. It bleeds into every area of life for children who, for the most part, don’t benefit from drama clubs, LAMDA courses, and extracurricular debating societies in their oversubscribed state schools packed with children from low income backgrounds. Down the road, Newcastle University now boasts one of the most academically prestigious - along with one of the most privately educated cohorts - of all higher education institutions across the UK. The wealthy area of Jesmond is now dominated by student housing that has become too expensive for most other residents to afford. In no other British city is such a discrepancy in socio-cultural opportunity more obvious.

Outside the galleries in Newcastle now, sad flyers that plead "NOT 100%" are fluttering in a cold February breeze. The fourth floor of the Jobcentre still boasts a lengthy queue. The north of England has always seemed strangely far away from the south, much further in the collective mind than it ever could be geographically – and it has never seemed so far removed. Will libraries in Heaton and Byker close? Probably. The council continues to hold its final consultations, but the local mood is changing. And sadly, it feels like it will be a very long time until the concerns or the achievements of the North East find their way into the national news again.

Photograph: Getty Images
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

0800 7318496