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A special thank you to Robert Cochrane as the composer of the theme tune music, and Merlyn Thomas our editor.
Henry Southern 00:03
Welcome to The Culture Bar, a panel discussion podcast exploring, dissecting and shedding light on important topics in the arts and music world, which matter to you.
Alex Soble 00:13
Henry Southern 00:14
We have just recorded a fantastic podcast about how the arts can respond to the climate emergency. That was with Sam Lee, Crispin Woodhead, and Alex Sobel MP. That podcast will be out on the 22nd of April, so do check it out. And Alex is kindlywith us again now for a quick one on one, an after hours chat, a fireside chinwag if you will, to discuss issues relating to the arts more broadly. Alex is a member of the UK Parliament whose constituency is Leeds Northwest, and he is also Shadow Minister for the arts, heritage and tourism. So if you don’t mind, Alex, we’re going to dive straight in. Now Alex, we had colleague Jamie stone MP on the podcast recently, and since then, he’s been leading a campaign to repurpose the £120 million for the festival UK, aka the Brexit festival. Is that something which you endorse?
Alex Soble 01:07
Well, I mean, what’s the bigger event this year, Brexit or COP and the UK’s presidency of G7? Wouldn’t it be much better to have a climate emergency festival or a netzero festival? Obviously, the chair… ppgl put a bid in for the UK netzero festival. I could volunteer to chair the committee. So yeah, absolutely.
Henry Southern 01:28
Fair enough. Well, hopefully, there’ll also be responses within that brief for the best of your case, the climate emergency was interesting to be aware of that. But at the time of talking, the budget came out a couple of days ago. And more generally, is there any comfort the arts and heritage, and the sector more broadly, can take from the budget?
Alex Soble 01:48
The budget was a short term response to COVID if we’re honest, and lots of organisations were looking at a cliff edge, and for many of those organisations the cliff edge has been moved forward, which is, which is, which is the pattern of the government, cliff edge approaches, they move the cliff edge, and those that were on the cliff, if you like, they save temporarily. So, you know, the announcements around furlough, the announcements around business rates, announcements around VAT, tourism, hospitality, if you’re running a music venue, or a nightclub, or you’re in an arts organisation where you’re furloughed, then that is all good news, that the government, I think, sold something that wasn’t really a solution in the fact that the Rishi Sunak said that they were gonna include a big group of people who’ve been excluded for all support, which disproportionately hits creative industries. So the three mil excluded the gaps in support for COVID, a group of people. So we included people who register for self employment later and done, and done a return for 2019 – 20. But that the excluded UK’s analysis shows that that’s only 155,000 out of 3 million, so great for that 155,000, absolutely. But it doesn’t resolve the problem, we’re still we’re still actually in excess of 3 million excluded. And that that is devastating those individuals, what we’ve seen, actually, and I’ve got personal mentors in my constituency is people who were involved in Creative Industries, whether that was in, I’ve got a guy who was a lighting rig guy, I’ve got people who are artists, they’ve gone for retraining, and they’ve left the creative industries, and I’m not sure they’re gonna go back.
Henry Southern 03:28
Well, I think there was, I don’t know the exact figure but the musicians union brought out a survey very recently, I’d say it’s a very high proportion of 30% plus, of musicians are, have either left or considering leaving the industry, which, of course, is tragic. But what, can I ask what are you doing for those 3 million people that have been excluded? Because as you say, a lot of them are in the creative industries, by the very nature of the way that we work.
Alex Soble 03:51
Yeah. I mean, right at the beginning of the crisis, I wrote, and before slightly before, in fact, on, I wrote an article in The Independent calling for universal basic income, you can even just have universal basic income for the creative industries. In America, they’ve just passed the 1.9 trillion stimulus, which includes, I think it’s now $1400, cheque for every I can’t remember whether it’s family or work about everybody, which is a form of, you know, direct payments, forming universal basic income, those things can all happen. We know who those people are, they’re excluded, the government could give them a one off payment, the government could provide them support. There are a whole range of things that could happen. There is a single solution, but there are lots of options. And they could just pick one of those options. And that will be the solution. And you know, we’re continuing to carry on campaigning on this in the gaps in support or party groups which I’m a member of, which is a real cross party group that has a conservative chair. I don’t really understand how the government can’t feel the pressure on this. You know, they have spent a lot of money in other areas, but not on this. And it just seems to be like you know, they’ve got real blockage in this area. I don’t really understand why, but that’s just how it is.
Henry Southern 05:02
Well, one of the other elements that’s quite pertinent for the arts, which was perhaps missed out on this budget, and it’s been there’s been lobbying for some time is about insurance indemnity. And this has been extended to the film industry, but not to other elements, the creative industries. And do you know why that might be?
Alex Soble 05:19
I don’t because this was raised during the Brexit touring debate. This was raised in the petitions committee discussion, that so so DCMS ministers, if they weren’t aware of it before, because of COVID, they became very acutely aware of it because of the Brexit touring issue. And, you know, a lot of festivals have announced, including Leeds Festival, which obviously my local major music as well, which I think this year will be the largest Music Fest in the UK, it’s got no Glastonbury, because it was obviously very early in the season too close to the to the date where festivals can start. And those festivals, although an ounce might not go ahead because they can’t afford the insurance costs or can’t get insurance. And so we they need that insurance indemnity scheme. And those festivals need to happen because those festivals are a lifeline to 10s of 1000s of musicians, and other creatives, festivals aren’t just about musicians, they’re about comedians, they’re about writers, they’re about visual artists, they’re around a whole range of people, and then obviously, all the infrastructure supports them, all of the lighting people, the sound people, the rigging people, that whole you know, and then and then also, all of the touring vans, and buses, this whole huge supply chain here, supporting, you know, hundreds of 1000s of jobs. And if they can’t get insurance, that’s that that is gonna create a huge hole in the economy. I’ve not seen the analysis, but but I think it’s over a billion pound hole in the economy. If because just this tiny bit that the government just unlocked by backing or indemnifying, the festival insurance, you know, which they have, as you rightly said, have done for the film industry. So hopefully, I mean, there’s still time, there’s still time, we’re only in March, so the government could still come around to it, it doesn’t need a budget for them to make that decision.
Henry Southern 07:10
Well, let’s hope so. And it’s great to hear that you’re lobbying for that. You mentioned about Leeds festival, I’m sure that you’re obviously of course very passionate about but I’m also aware that Leeds were put together a bid to be the European Capital of Culture in 2023. And of course, I believe they’re no longer able to do that as part of the Brexit agreement. But I gather they’ve pivoted, I thought this is a story worth celebrating. But they’re still going to have a cultural year of celebration in 2023. Yes, so…
Alex Soble 07:41
Absolutely. So so I mean, I was on the council, when this all happened still, as the lead for climate change, and we tried through various routes to retain that Capital of Culture, but the EU were very clear if you’re not in the EU, and you’re not a state bidding to become in the EU because we have had European capitals od culture in in countries that are members EU but are bidding to join EU accession countries. So so that was really disappointing news, I firmly believe that Leeds would have been the European Capital of Culture if if we could have stayed. So the council decides to pivot and have a year of culture. And it was the right decision in many ways. Because when we made a decision, when we were bidding for European Capital of culture, Channel Four hadn’t decided where they were moving, but they decided to move to Leeds, the government hadn’t decided we’re gonna have a British Library in the north and hadn’t decided where it’s gonna be. But it’s going to be in Leeds. I think if we’d abandoned our commitment to culture, we wouldn’t have had that inward investment creating hundreds of jobs into Leeds economy. There are opponents, you know, the cap, the City Council budget is very tight, you know, the government cuts to councils up and down the country of men of men, that that things which are not statutory, have been at risk, Leeds has cut the amount of money that it’s giving to the to the to the year of culture, and we do need the private sector to pick that up so that we can have a successful year. But there are still critics who say they should scrap it completely. But I my very strong view is that culture is part of our recovery. It’s part of the need, that also brings in other investment. We just got the national infrastructure bank in the budget, as well. And I think all of that draws people to be in Leeds, to stay in Leeds, you know, we have vibrant capital of the North alongside Manchester and Liverpool, and Newcastle and Sheffield and the other big cities of the north as a counterweight to London. So people feel they’ve got careers in the north and northern cities in all areas, and culture is really important part of that, as is transport, as is housing. So those so those, that decision by the city has already paid dividends will continue to pay dividends, although it is a strain on its budget.
Henry Southern 09:56
Well, that’s really great to hear. And I mean one thing I wanted to ask you was also about the north south divide, the government’s ambitions to level up the country and and with that in an arts context, I mean, I’ve got some figures here that culture funding per head in London, this is between 2010 to 2018 was £687 per head, but in the rest of the UK is £144. Does that demonstrate that there’s levelling up happening? Doesn’t sound like it and and also the value which of, of the arts in the UK more broadly, but specifically outside of London?
Alex Soble 10:34
Well I’m not I’m not a big fan of the north south economic divide, because there are places in the south of England, yes, somwhere like Cornwall, which also usually disadvantage, which also have low per head funding on a whole range of issues. But I think we’ve got a structural problem in this country, which I’m really passionate about that we have the most centralised country in Europe. You know, we’ve got these forms of evolution, we’re about to have a metro mayor in West Yorkshire, who actually the labour candidates, Tracy Braven, a huge, you know, former actress, director, producer, writer, a huge cultural figure, political cultural figure. So you know, so we’re going to hopefully have that that cultural dividend, if she’s elected mayor. But the problem is, is that is that we don’t have, we should be a federal country, where we have whatever the geographic boundaries of that are, we have full devolution with devolved powers, with tax raising powers. And that means that that we can spend that money we can make the decisions much more locally, regionally, rather than decisions all being made by a man sat in Downing Street or two men, to be fair, Boris and Rishi sat in Downing Street deciding what’s going to happen all around the country on a postcode lottery, that is not what happens in France, or Germany, or Italy, or Spain. And that is why if you go to those countries, that that many of the other cities, Germany’s a really good example of this, you know, have got, you know, huge cultural dividends, huge transport dividends, huge housing dividends, because that the power doesn’t all reside in the capital of the country, it resides in the regions, and we need to recast our constitutional settlement. So there’s much more power in the regions, I think that will also have an effect on the UK constitutionally, because we are breaking apart at the seams. And you know, that there is increased pressures for parts of the UK, Northern Ireland, Scotland, specifically, to no longer be part of the UK. And I think this all is part of that constitutional settlement and are very critical to conservative parties, their conservativism has created this, and they have unleashed a whirlwind, and they need to re distribute power to balance that that will calm it down.
Henry Southern 12:52
Could you argue that more devolution, more local politics will actually lead to more bureaucracy, more costs, so is it actually more effective? Does the money go to the heart of the issue?
Alex Soble 13:05
I mean, it isn’t, you know, if you look, if you look at those other countries, that isn’t the case. And the reality is, you know, the argument, bureaucracy, the percentage, if you have, you know, particularly of other institutions, bureaucracy is a very small amount of costs compared to the dividends you’ll get in inward investment in tax cake in, in knowing where the need is and how to spend it. If you, if you make if you have, just because you’ve centralised bureaucracy doesn’t mean there’s, there’s, you know, there’s going to be any cheaper.
Henry Southern 13:38
Fair enough. So lastly, by having that local knowledge and local authority, there’s more effective spending as well. Yeah.
Alex Soble 13:44
I mean, it’s also about, you know, we’re quite a large country, you know, in European terms, you know, our population’s nudging 80 million. So it’s about having units, which stack up, you know, having having units of around 5 million 4, 5, 6, 7 million people does make sense bureaucratically, I’m not suggesting that we make parishes, you know, villages of 5000 people responsible for collecting income tax, that would be absurd, you know, but I’m talking about putting, having having regions, many of which will be the size of Belgium. That’s what I’m suggesting, which itself is a regional country, you know?
Henry Southern 14:26
Yeah. I’m mindful of the time, we’re going to ask you two more things if that’s okay. And I’m going to shift gear. I’m going to shift gear to contested heritage. That’s been quite a personal issue recently. I know heritage is sort of part of your brief, and there was a meeting very recently between Oliver Downs and the various people that are running the museums around the country. And there’s been lots of kickback in particular for the National Trust. And Professor Corinne Fowler’s reports on colonialism and the history of slavery, particularly also from a conservative government, but um, what are your thoughts on contested heritage? Should we be highlighting some of our difficult past? Or should we be glossing over it?
Alex Soble 15:08
I mean, it’s very interesting because the government are picking and choosing what is contested heritage, so, so I believe very strongly in academic and curatorial independence. So we have to allow institutions to have their independence. And for government not to interfere in it, we need to have transparent grant making processes which aren’t politically influenced, you know, if I was the minister, and I was in charge of grant process, I wouldn’t be signing off on grants, because my politics might influence them, there might be some quite conservative institution doing something, you know, that I’m not particularly interested in. And I would like, I’m not signing off this grant, because it doesn’t speak to the concerns of my constituents, or working class communities, or whatever it is. But that really shouldn’t be my decision. And the same thing goes for Oliver Dowden, and so, once you know that it’s right for the government set criteria. But that criteria has to respect that academic and curatorial independence and allow, you know, a neutral process once it’s set. And I think that they’re also picking and choosing because there’s bits of our heritage, which are being dismantled by the government, without any, without any support. So for instance, there’s a project in, near Bambury around the sort of work that was done during the Cold War, and the government, they’re not giving any support. But that is also part of our history, contested history as well. So on one hand, they’re saying this is settled history, don’t contest it. On the other hand, they themselves, you know, are are taking actions, it just depends on which period you choose. And so that doesn’t make any sense. If they’re saying, well, in this period, we’re not contesting in this period. We are contesting, you know, how it just doesn’t it, doesn’t it, it just looks like they’re playing politics with it.
Henry Southern 17:11
Yeah. AndI think that’s a very important point to highlight and I know, there’s been reports about the museum and heritage sectors bein,g their funding being threatened, if they’re not highlighting certain issues are well, if they’re, well, if they’re not not downplaying certain issues, which is, of course, as you say, we need that independence. Do you think that independence also extends to the BBC, as well?
Alex Soble 17:35
Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, state state broadcasters, in many places, and historically have been broadcasters directed by the state. But that’s never been, that’s never been the never been the UK tradition. And, and shouldn’t be. So I’m, I’m a big defender of the licence fee. The BBC has changed, has adapted, you know, you just need to look at something like the sounds app or iplayer, that they are a public service broadcaster, but they’re also they also provide content for groups are indicated for I mean, I alluded in earlier, like the, you know, listen, to listen to radio six a lot, you know, who else would provide that content if the BBC didn’t provide it? So, you know, I think I think that the BBC should be a cherished institution, and the government should, you know, through through DCMS, and through the leaves, it’s got such an appointing the chair to BBC, etc, and encourage it to reform and change and stay relevant. If the BBC comes in irrelevant, then then there’ll be a problem. But that doesn’t seem to me to be what’s happening at the moment, the decision just this week to bring BBC Three back to being a broadcast channel was that was was because they had really successful shows online, like years and years, for instance, or the one at the moment, and PR you or crew, that pupil referral unit. So so they they they they reacted to that record to the market and brought it back. And that’s that’s exactly the way the BBC should operate.
Henry Southern 19:14
Hear hear! I’d love to go into more detail about these sorts of things but I’ll, I’ll just going to ask one last time, one last point. One of the things which our industry would also like some comfort on is knowing that there is some consensus amongst governments to try and resolve the issue with work permits travelling and working in the EU. There’s been lots of he said, she said, the EU claimed that the UK rejected the offer and vice versa. Do you know what what actually happened? And also what is being done right this minute to help us.
Alex Soble 19:48
I mean, we just talk about contested history, we just switched to contemporary history here. So you know, there’s a letter from the EU to I think I think it’s either an Irish MP or or a minister, which which says, you know what you’ve just said that it was the UK decision. And then Caroline Dinenage saying in the chamber that it was the EU’s decision. Now really, I’m going to reflect what the industry said, we don’t really care, like this decision is now, it just needs resolving. And that and my very strong view is that officials from DCMS, and the home office, and potentially days in the Cabinet Office just need to get in a room with the EU, whether it’s a Zoom Room or a real room, and just and just hammer it out before the summer hits. Because once touring is back, once the festival circuit is back, you know, talk about UK festivals, what about European festivals, UK and European festivals, you know, for some artists, that is the lifeline for them this year, you know, either the UK festival circuit or the European versity or or a combination of both. And so they’ve they’ve really got a couple of months to resolve this. And they and they need to, and they can’t resolve one issue. They can’t solve the work permits issue they need to resolve all of the issues, they need to resolve the cabotage issue. They need to resolve the equipment hire issue, they need to resolve all the issues together, they need to have a cohesive package. And it is possible without any treaty change. So they just need to really focus down and get it done.
Henry Southern 21:20
This, do you think that sense of urgency is felt in DCMS because we certainly feel that I work in touring at the moment and we can already feel promoter’s apprehension about engaging UK ensembles which of course, is the last thing we want, as you mentioned earlier that soft power is is vital for the UK.
Alex Soble 21:36
I think they are feeling it. I think they are feeling it, whether they’re acting on it, I can’t tell but I hope that they are. And it’s fair enough they’re doing it without running a public commentary. I completely understand that, as, but the important thing is the outcome, and that we get an outcome before the summer. 2022 is not not really very helpful. I mean, it’s obviously better than no outcome at all. But you know, really should happen for this summer.
Henry Southern 22:04
Absolutely. And and can I ask what what are you doing to help help that process along?
Alex Soble 22:09
I mean, I’ve I’ve written I’ve written to Oliver Dowden on this. And this isn’t directly my brief because I don’t I don’t cover that bit. So in the debates and everything. It’s been Allie McGovern, who’s responded, I’ve been working with Allie, like I said earlier, I was speaking to various musicians and venue promoters. There’s a new organised touring, which I think is called touring UK by I might have got it wrong. And I dropped a line to its chair Stuart Galbraith. And I spoke to local people around it. And just just I’m engaging with with the sector. I’m engaged with live music trust in music, UK. You know, I was in a meeting just last week with people like Melvin Benn and Sasha Lorde on this issue as well, and trying to earn having a whole team response to support Allie, who’s the main Shadow Minister in her work with the government. So, you know, there’s a whole team effort in the shadow DCMS team, this is right at the top of our agenda. But at the end of the day, we can’t negotiate with EU, only the government can.
Henry Southern 23:06
Well, Alex, thank you so much for your time, and for all your efforts championing the causes for the arts. We look forward to seeing how that develops.