English National Opera plan exposes flawed strategy for creativity in the North - Paul Fleming

From some recent reporting, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the performing arts in the North of England are not under attack. But far from being a key plank of a robust ‘levelling up’ agenda, the recent announcement of cuts to Arts Council England (ACE) regular funding heralded disaster for cultural institutions across the UK, particularly those outside of London.In fact, of the organisations that are facing a devastating 100 per cent loss of ACE funding, 70 per cent of those are outside of London. When even organisations who aren’t facing cuts, like Leeds’s Eclipse theatre company, are describing the doubling of their award as ‘bittersweet’, and warning of the impact on friends, colleagues, and communities, you’d think politicians from all Parties would pause for thought before buying into ‘levelling-up’ propaganda. Because the truth is that ‘levelling-up’ is the lipstick on the pig of austerity, and it is the audiences and workers in Yorkshire who will suffer.

For every £1 invested in the arts, between £6-8 is returned into local economies – to the bars, restaurants, shops, taxi firms, hotels, set builders, who need custom and quality work to survive. It is trade unions from across the economy, alongside Equity as the performing arts trade union, which are fighting back for a sector whose economic and social value must matter to us all. Those who are cheering funding cuts decisions are, to coin a phrase, an anti-growth coalition.

Nowhere is the strategy more exposed than the stripping of English National Opera’s funding award and an ultimatum that they must move out of London, preferably to Manchester. Much of this discourse has obscured the real victims: the workers at ENO whose jobs are at risk, and the Northern audiences who are being offered pound shop opera in the car park and told to be grateful.

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Overlooked by both ACE and blinkered political figures who welcome those moves is Opera North. Opera North is a jewel in the crown of Yorkshire and the North’s cultural heritage. It offers secure union jobs to creative workers across the North, and world renowned opera to its audiences. Although based in Leeds, their core purpose is to cultivate and deliver an opera audience across the North and now, without consultation or a national strategy, they find the prospect of a second major company parachuted into one of their key cities.

Paul Fleming of Equity.Paul Fleming of Equity.
Paul Fleming of Equity.

Post-pandemic arts are on life support, and audiences are not back to 2019 levels. Our members at Opera North are currently in negotiations about their future contracts, and ACE’s decision to move ENO may put everything on the table. Jobs, pay and conditions are at risk.

Whilst ACE funding for Opera North has remained static, the forced ENO move is a slap in the face to the creativity and ingenuity of work that Opera North has created over the decades.

There is nothing wrong with having more opera in the North, but it must come on the back of true demand and proper investment.

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The Arts Council England has allocated ENO only time limited funding at a fraction of its previous budget to relocate, acquire a new purpose built venue, transfer jobs or make redundancies, and continue to offer its highly acclaimed education and NHS therapy programmes. You don’t need a calculator to see the sums just don’t add up. The obvious cut to make is to the 300 permanent, high quality union jobs in the ENO’s cast and crew in one of the most diverse opera choruses in the world. The destruction of the ENO also means a cut to the work opportunities for performers from Opera North and other freelancers who take on additional work there during an off season. No-one was consulted on this decision. There was no detailed, worked out plan with ENO about how to make the move.

This funding round has shown that the Arts Council England is broken and the decisions made in 2022 were nakedly politically influenced. Far from levelling up, challenging companies have been silenced, regional bastions like Oldham Coliseum entirely cut, and the Chair of the Arts Council himself described the decisions they have made as ‘invidious’. He spoke of how the Secretary of State had ‘instructed’ the Arts Council to behave like this: this is the end of hard won creative freedom brought by supposedly arms-length funding. It’s time not just for better funding, but to end top-down decisions and put funding in the hands of artists and audiences in the regions and communities where they live and work.

The Arts Council must now show how their funding decisions leave stable jobs intact, and arts jobs accessible to ordinary people from across the UK. A real strategy looks like investing in home grown talent, local opera companies, and supporting communities in the North to flourish creatively, not wrecking a national institution like ENO.

The new Secretary of State Michelle Donelan, is not bound by her predecessor’s many mistakes. The North knows what it needs, so give it the money and powers that it lacks, and get out of the way.

Paul Fleming is General Secretary of Equity.