Comment on The Factory arts centre and a call to unite against Tory cuts

Jenny Clegg,  2 March 2017

Conrad Bower’s recent article in the Meteor, ‘Spending £110m on The Factory arts centre is wrong while cuts to public services continue’ falls short of presenting the whole picture. The article is directed against the City Council, when we should all be uniting against the Tory government cuts.

There are a number of angles to be explored.

First of all on the question of financing the £110 million costs for the project, £80 million is government money for arts projects, and £10 million is from the Arts Council, which will also be paying revenue costs. The total amount from the City Council is £20 million. This is still a hefty sum in times of cuts and growing hardship. However, the money comes out of capital funds which is borrowed at low interest, not out of the revenue budget and cannot just be switched around.

The Family Nurse Partnership, which Conrad Bower suggests should have been funded instead, has suffered as a result of cuts by the government to the public health budget. This service for first-time mothers will continue under the Council to be provided by health visitors.

To return to the issue of the Factory project, some of the criticism directed against it seems to come from a narrowly economistic viewpoint – if people cannot afford to heat their homes and adult social care services are stretched beyond breaking point, is it right to be spending public monies on the arts? But then shouldn’t socialists be calling for roses with their bread? Manchester has a great cultural history and Mancunians from all walks of life over the ages have been introduced to wider horizons by the likes of the City Art Gallery and the Halle Orchestra.

In the 1980s, the Madchester Sound helped in hauling the city out of the ruins of Thatcher’s economic blight. The Council’s support of sports and the arts, including support for our diverse cultures, has helped to rejuvenate the city. Today’s cultural facilities, popular for outings with family and friends, are important in sustaining the social fabric of our lives.

But we also need to get real on the bigger economic picture. This is now a matter of urgency. What kind of a future will Manchester have? A recent report has suggested that within the next 15 years, around 250,000 public sector jobs could be taken over by automated systems and artificial intelligence. Employment in Manchester is quite heavily dependent on the public sector. Not only routine service sector but also management jobs are already being automated. What will there be left for Mancunians to do? The priorities getting my vote are first the renewable energy sector, then the creative arts. The Factory Arts Centre will help to create jobs and opportunities for the future. It could serve as a hub supporting self-employed artists and as a training centre to encourage young people to go for a career in cultural industries.

For Manchester to flourish in the future, the city needs to attract investment to create jobs. The Factory will enhance Manchester’s image as a place to invest. It was after all, the National Velodrome that was the major attraction for India’s Hero Cycles, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of bicycles, when they decided just recently to open a £2 million global design centre in Manchester.

And to attract investment, we need a highly skilled workforce. Part of this involves keeping students in Manchester once they have graduated. Our universities are an asset from which we fail to realise the full benefit as new expertise drains to London. Here again, the Factory can play a role contributing to an attractive cultural and social life.

But at the same time much more needs to be done in terms of training and transport links to ensure that local people can take up new job opportunities. It cannot just be about promoting a metropolitan elite. Manchester has its share of those left behind. It is true that the City Council has presided over these inequalities and has not listened enough to its working class voters. It should be doing much more to reach out to these communities and ensure that Manchester’s growth is more inclusive and that its prosperity is shared. However there is no chance of doing so if the Tories are allowed to totally wreck the existing system of local government provision that has developed over the decades.

So first, we need to unite against the Tory cuts. We should always hold our councillors to scrutiny and question their decisions, but not in ways that divide.

Jenny Clegg,  2 March 2017