The Factory arts centre, predicted to cost £110 million, being given the go ahead by Manchester city councillors provides a high profile expansion of Manchester’s cultural opportunities that will no doubt produce, perform and exhibit excellent work. However at a time when the region is experiencing austerity driven shortages in social care, health and housing could this money be better spent elsewhere? Are cultural vanity projects really the answer to Manchester’s problems?

A lack of culture is one thing Manchester is rarely accused of by its inhabitants or visitors to the city. One of the main reasons people love the city is because of the numerous cultural opportunities on offer, according to a recent video vox pop carried out by The Meteor.

The £110m arts centre, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is a major part of George Osborne’s northern powerhouse plan aiming to enhance the region’s economy. It will be built on the old Granada TV studios site and form part of the new St John’s neighbourhood, which is being jointly developed by Manchester City Council (MCC) and the property development company Allied London. Osborne promised £78m of government money towards the project leaving MCC responsible for delivering the estimated remaining £32m of the funding package.

While MCC is finding the cash for this grand cultural project it is carrying out huge cuts to public services, forced on them by national government, that is straining the fabric of our society to breaking point. Since 2010/11 Manchester City Council has undertaken cuts to its budget of £271m, almost a third of the total, and reduced its workforce by 38%.

Cuts or savings?

Make no mistake, we are not all “in this together” as conservatives Cameron and Osborne repeatedly stated, when their ideologically driven austerity agenda got under way. When it comes to cuts to public services the poorest and most vulnerable communities are hit the hardest.

In 2015 MCC agreed on budget cuts to Housing Related Support and the Homelessness Prevention Grant totalling just over £2m. Both of these funds are vital for preventing homelessness in the ever growing number of households trying to keep the increasingly ravenous austerity wolf from the door.

The Family Nurse Partnership (FNP) programme provides support to first time young mothers under the age of 20 in Manchester. Many of their clients have mental health problems, learning difficulties or have suffered domestic abuse. Independent research estimates that for each £1.00 invested in FNP work, society obtains £1.94 in return, due partly to reduced use of public services. This makes MCC’s decision to cut the Public Health Services budget by £370k, resulting in the end of the FNP programme, appear to be another false economy.

Unite regional officer Keith Hutson, said in defence of the FNP:

“This is about local people looking out for our community…Withdrawing this service will be detrimental in affecting the health, well-being and life chances of both the parents and the children.“

Alcohol and drug services (ADS) are a vital area of health and social care. They can help the large number of homeless people with substance abuse problems tackle them and ultimately find health, stability and a home. They are also very important in helping other vulnerable people and preventing homelessness in the first place. These services reduce the strain on the NHS from the myriad health issues associated with substance abuse. The ADS budget was cut by £430k with further cuts predicted for 2016/17.

The austerity-driven cuts continue, which MCC have started to describe euphemistically as savings in their draft budget proposals, taking a leaf from the current UK government’s fondness for doublespeak. A further £30m of ‘savings’ to Manchester’s budget will be spread over the next three years.

This pattern is being repeated all over the Greater Manchester Region and there may be more cuts to come. The Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership is a body formed in 2015 between the 37 NHS organisations and local authorities as part of the Devo Manc deal. It now directs all health and social care in GM and recently revealed a predicted £897m deficit for the NHS and a £176m social care deficit.

Cultural class divide

While these budget cuts push vulnerable communities and the working class deeper into poverty and despair, it feels wrong to be spending £110m on an arts centre that will mainly benefit the middle and upper class. Both Julie Walters and Judi Dench have spoken about a class/wealth divide in the arts that prevents people from poorer working class backgrounds making career progress and favours those from more affluent backgrounds. As for the potential visitors to The Factory: if you don’t know where your next month’s rent is coming from and you are dependent on a food bank for your groceries, you are unlikely to fork out for a night at the theatre.

There are many public services that this money could protect from cuts but even when it comes to promoting culture within the region, massive arts centres are not the only solution. Numerous art institutions in Manchester could benefit from a share of a fraction of the money being spent on The Factory. This could be done in a way to promote participation from the working class, bridging that class divide rather than entrenching it.

The cuts to public services are undermining the foundations of our society, leaving vanity projects like The Factory being built on very shaky ground. If we really want to build a Greater Manchester that is truly great, with cultural opportunities for all, we need to start investing in its most important resource: its people.

Conrad Bower

A petition in support of the Family Nurse Partnership Programme can be found by clicking here.

Featured Image via Pixabay

A response to this article by Jen Clegg can be found on the Meteor Letters page, entitled: ‘Comment on The Factory arts centre and a call to unite against Tory cuts‘.

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  • Conrad Bower

    Reporting interests include social justice, the environment, and human rights. A staunch advocate for the scientific method and rational debate for understanding the world - he believes only greater public understanding and engagement with the problems affecting society, can produce the progressive change we need. Co-founder of The Meteor.

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  1. As a former nurse from a cultural and fiscally disadvantaged background, and someone who is directly affected by a multiplicity of Government cuts from the Bedroom Tax to delayed pension (1995 & 2011 Acts), All introduced by Conservative Governments; together with wider austerity measures affecting almost every service which has over decades improved the lives of working class people: whether that be the NHS or integrated Public Transport, the amount of money Manchester is investing is this project is minimal.. what should have been questioned was what the City Council tied themselves into for grant aid from the Govt to be given.

    Much as the Mayoral Election was disputed by residents of Greater Manchester, the ‘deal’ being done behind closed doors, was and is the problem -Not the Arts, or the £110m being spent of regeneration of Granada site.

    I value the input of the arts not merely as ‘entertainment’ but as part of a questioning society, that looks to the future, to a society that enables its citizens, affords them alternative forms of education. The arts are not only for the wealthy or the middle class – and while many of us couldn’t afford to hang an original Picasso on our living room walls, we must recognise that works like Geurnica represented the struggle of a people, of a Country and of civilisation itself. Manchester may not produce a Picasso, but without support for the arts – and that means money.. and investment, we may never know if we could produce a Picasso.

    One artist may not a revolution make, but they can instill the kind of recognition words often fail to generate. Art (the Arts) can encompass compassion for our fellow humans, for the environment for justice and peace..

    As a child with few ‘good’ memories of adults, two things altered my perspective on life: A visits to the theatre (to see an operatic version of Oliver Twist – pre the popular musical movie!) and one to an Art gallery.. both in the City of Manchester. My ambition then was to become an Artist in the traditional painting sense.. but there was no possibility, no facililitation for working class children – what had happened to me was a flook… I had entered and seen another world but did not have access to it. And that is where politics begins!

    A generation later my own daughter, an Artist, still has to have a day job, because Art for the Working Class is still a hobby.. not Work. Not of any import unlike curing the sick..

    So NO.. this is not a vanity project or a waste of money, or funding or effort.. if there are criticisms look to the ‘method’ and later look to the outcomes.. are they want we want?

    Yes, the arts needs to be more inclusive, Yes the arts could do more to make theatre accessible.. but that also begs the question of what kind of Society we actually want. Do we want theatre where the Working Class can occupy ‘the cheap seats’ like beggars in rags at a ball, or do we want them sitting in an audience viewing the performance from a position of equality, understanding and knowledge?! [on a living wage] The Working Class have as much need of the Arts today as they ever did. And as a recent production stated “We want bread but we want roses too”.

    The austerity cuts are being implemented in and by Labour controlled local authorities under certain conditions imposed upon them by a Conservative ‘extreme right wing’ Government, in a time of global reactionary attacks on all that is civil society. They are unwilling participants, but not yet revolutionary in their ideas or ability to combat such central control, or indeed global events. And to give them some benefit of the doubt, perhaps, just maybe they got a good deal on regenerating another area of the City of Manchester – and in the end the Factory Arts Center may generate income, and may produce a ‘madforit’ Picasso.

    But in the final analysis.. it’s what they Do with it that will count, and which will tell us if they sold out the Citizens of Manchester.

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