Disastrous Decisions In The UK As Birmingham Council Slashes All Arts Funding

The Birmingham Rep altered the course of Britain’s cultural history. Opened in 1913 by the dramatist Billie Lester, the company’s ambition to champion formally innovative work and new writing attracted the likes of Laurence Olivier, who joined in 1926. The Rep hosted British premieres of works by Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy. The current theatre building is one of Birmingham’s finest examples of mid-century architecture – designed and built in 1971 by Graham Winteringham, its glossy, futuristic front conceals an interior that still carries the excitement of an airport departure lounge in the early days of flight. But today, the fate of the building and its activity hangs in the balance. Closure is possible, with funding from local government to be withdrawn completely by 2025. The theatre’s artistic director, Rachael Thomas, tells me that the situation is dire, “a microcosm for the hollowing out of civic life that is taking place across the city”.

Birmingham city council declared itself in effect bankrupt in 2023. Austerity measures imposed by the Conservative government had finally created an intolerable climate for one of the largest local authorities in Europe. Due to an enormous funding deficit, cuts of £300m are planned to take place over the next two years, including reduced waste collections and dimmed street lighting. All funding to local arts organisations, including the Rep, Ikon Gallery and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, will be scrapped by 2025, with a 50% reduction already imposed this year. The decision has been condemned by figures such as Birmingham Royal Ballet’s director, Carlos Acosta, the musician Actress, members of Duran Duran and Napalm Death, and Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, among many others.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s promise of a one-off payment of £10m to organisations in crisis is an insult – emergency aid for a crisis of his own creation. Local Tory councillors have highlighted mistakes that were made by the Labour-run organisation, in an attempt to deflect attention. Yet while some of these complaints are valid, the facts incriminating central government are overwhelming and irrefutable: one in five council leaders in England now say they are likely to find themselves unable to balance their books in the next 15 months. Birmingham has sadly become the bellwether of our society’s decline.

Scapegoating the city and its people is nothing new. Decades of mocking media depictions – remember the Prudential pensions adverts of the 1990s, in which the local actor Mark Williams had to ham up his accent to play a small-minded dolt? – take their toll, and it’s fair to say that the people of Birmingham contend with a lot of internalised shame. Growing up in the city, I believed that the arts belonged to other people and to other places – the citizens of illustrious European capitals and university towns that I had seen on TV. Thankfully, a few key organisations in the city and a couple of decent schoolteachers showed me another way. When my English teacher, Mr Carson, picked up on my tendency to overanalyse set texts at school, he sent me to Birmingham’s Central Library to discover American postmodernism, and it was here that my love of reading really began. Coming from a working-class household with little disposable income, my prospects of one day becoming a published writer were slim to nonexistent without access to public libraries, galleries and museums, or theatres offering heavily subsidised tickets to students and school kids.

The impact of the cuts on the city’s cultural sector might seem trivial when vital health and social services are being cut and council taxes being raised. But nothing, in my opinion, could be more emblematic of the way that Britain currently devalues life: when we only focus on our most basic needs, dismissing leisure, art, literature and culture as something decadent and middle-class, we do ourselves an injustice, and risk dismissing the long tradition of working-class and lower-middle-class cultural production, and participation in the artistic life of the country. These are not decadent luxuries, but vital resources that promote social cohesion, morale and personal wellbeing. Ironically, engagement with civic life only creates happier workforces, whose productivity can then be used to better fund local services. In this respect, a well-functioning arts sector is one that works symbiotically with the local economy: both rely on the other.

A failure to comprehend that symbiosis is now written into the story of the city. Next door to the Rep, now in Centenary Square in the city’s west, is the Library of Birmingham, which was opened by Malala Yousafzai in 2013. The gold-and-grey stacked tower has been photographed endlessly, and initially seemed like an exciting new addition to the city’s skyline. Constructed at a cost of £188.8m, it formed part of the city council’s plans for regeneration. Not just your usual city library: this one, it was hoped, would attract tourists from all over the country and beyond. Within two years of opening, however, operating hours had been cut in half, more than 100 staff had been made redundant, and the library was forced to request donations after its book-buying budget was put on pause. This was partly due to a smaller footfall than expected, as well as an underestimation of the costs involved in running the building. Today, compromises have had to be made, and much of the building is not a library at all. As wonderful as it was to see such ambition at the beginning, the fact that the developers wanted to turn a public service into a tourist attraction only revealed a belief that libraries have no inherent value beyond profit.

The Rep Theatre and Library of Birmingham. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

You do not have to wander far to find further examples of imminent loss. The Birmingham Rep used to be housed in the Old Rep, a grade II-listed building on Station Street, in the city centre. The street was also home to the Electric cinema, a Birmingham institution since 1909 and the UK’s oldest cinema, celebrated for its art deco design and international perspective. In February, it was forced to close due to soaring rental costs imposed by the landlords and a local authority unable or unwilling to intervene.

The Electric is a place of historic importance. It introduced Birmingham to the silent movie era and later the talking pictures of Hollywood, it was a news theatre during the second world war, an adult cinema in its later life, and more recently, one of the few arthouse cinemas in the city. It’s been a lifeline for cinephiles, who tell me with pride that the city was also the place in which celluloid itself was invented. To lose the Electric would be the equivalent of Liverpool losing the Cavern Club, or London losing the 100 Club. It is not just a part of the city; for many it is the city.

The Electric cinema on Station Street. Photograph: David Warren/Alamy

Further down Station Street, the director of the Birmingham Music Archive, Jez Collins, has been fighting to protect the area, and was recently successful in getting the Crown pub, where Black Sabbath played their first gig, listed. His efforts have been accompanied by those of Darren John, who launched a petition to protect part of the area from being redeveloped into a 15-storey block of flats, something he discovered in a pre-planning document held by the city council. “It seems like the council’s financial troubles could give carte blanche to developers, as it tries to do whatever it can to attract money into the city,” says Ian Francis, the founder of Flatpack, an annual film festival hosted at different venues but centred on the inner-city area of Digbeth. “But if we let developers decide what our city looks like, it’s going to be ruled by the bottom line.”

Famous for its red-brick railway arches and large former industrial units, Digbeth has long been considered the city’s coolest district. In recent years, several housing blocks have appeared in the area, with many more planned. The effect of this has been to drive up rental costs for small, independent businesses and arts organisations. The truism goes that with an influx of wealth comes a drop in crime, but as Francis explains, “gentrification doesn’t mean that places necessarily become safer”. Digbeth has become something of a piss-up destination for corporate workers looking to let off steam, as well as those dropping in from out of town, and crime rates are rising.

The economic boom does not necessarily translate into social cohesion. In this respect, Digbeth reminds me of Shoreditch in London, a place that has almost become a parody of itself, favoured by bankers and tourists rather than local people, with derivative street art gracing every spare piece of wall. It is a place not of authentic cultural expression, but one that markets its former poverty as edginess for the sake of attracting business. That said, there are still many worthwhile businesses and organisations in Digbeth fighting hard to enrich the place and make a meaningful contribution, among them the wonderful Voce Books on Allison Street, which sells one of the best selections of independent titles I have ever found anywhere.

It’s important to note that efforts to protect the city’s heritage are being led by the people through grassroots movements and are steadily gaining ground. We may not all agree on precisely what makes Birmingham so great. The city I grew up in, for example, was one of mesmerising, interlocking concrete walkways and roads, public artworks, and tunnels. I loved the former Central Library (designed by John Madin, completed in 1973 and, despite high profile campaigning, demolished in 2016), the Smallbrook Queensway shopping arcade and the William Mitchell sculptures that hide out in an underpass in Lozells. Yet many become gooey and sentimental about the city’s Victorian heritage, epitomised by the Art Gallery’s large collection of paintings by the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the red-brick university building and the alms housing around the Cadbury factory in the southern suburb of Bournville, while sneering at the city’s brutalist masterpieces. I assumed for years that the destruction of Birmingham’s cultural heritage was aimed at eradicating evidence of the concrete-heavy postwar reconstruction and design by civil engineer Herbert Manzoni by those who were sentimental about Britain’s prewar past. But there should be room for both styles of architecture in a place that is diverse, tolerant and pluralistic. What strikes me is that such sectarianism is waning as we are faced with the need to unite against the pressing and serious concern of the city’s entire history being lost.

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Is it that internalised shame I mentioned earlier that drives planners to continually bulldoze and rewrite, to make Birmingham look as generic as possible, lest it ever have a clear identity through which its residents can feel some pride? To walk from New Street station to Paradise Circus where the former library stood, is to feel trapped in a virtual render for a hypothetical city, a place of identikit glass frontages and endless advertising space. And at what point does redevelopment become widespread cultural erasure? Is it paranoid to wonder whether this erasure is half the point: that art, conversation and ideas prompt our imagination and allow us to dream of more, which is what people in Birmingham have been told they must never do. Somehow, Britain’s second city has been successfully painted as marginal by distant technocrats who know nothing of its life force and lyricism.

Black Sabbath performing in 1973. Photograph: Colin Fuller/Redferns

This city has shaped modern Britain. It is the home of many greats – though he was born in the nearby city of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare would have spoken with a Brummie accent, while TV personality Alison Hammond still does. The heavy metal scene was birthed here, as was bhangra music in the 60s, spawning Apache Indian in the 80s; there is a rich heritage of two-tone and reggae in the city’s Jamaican communities. Musicians as diverse as Joan Armatrading, Dexys Midnight Runners, Fine Young Cannibals, Jamelia, Laura Mvula and Goldie originated from the city and its surrounding areas. The academic discipline of contemporary cultural studies, now a mainstay of humanities departments around the world, was founded by Richard Hoggart at Birmingham University. JRR Tolkien grew up here, and the world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was in part inspired by the Lickey Hills and Sarehole Mill. The kaleidoscopic landscapes of fantasy writer Joel Lane were given form here. Mike Skinner was born here, as was Benjamin Zephaniah.

Yet to state these points seems to almost feed the very problem that Thomas, John, Francis and so many others are fighting against: having to justify the need for preservation and respect. When I was growing up, I was regularly told that Clint Eastwood had once visited Birmingham, and was shown his picture in a newspaper clipping as he walked across a bridge looking pensive above one of the city’s dual carriageways. The message was always implicit but clear: that by the grace of some Hollywood movie star, we might actually be relevant.

But we were already relevant and should never have been made to feel otherwise. A reversal of that internalised shame, self-doubt and sense of inevitability is required now if the city is to be saved. Its only chance of survival is through the very loud and angry opposition of people who live there, who care about it and who desperately want to preserve everything about the city that is beautiful and good.

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