THE Communities Secretary has waded into Newcastle’s arts cuts row with a stinging attack on the city’s decision to axe cash for flagship cultural venues.
Conservative minister Eric Pickles has called on Newcastle Council leader Nick Forbes to either “take responsibility” for his own spending decisions or “step aside” and let someone else make the big decisions.
His comments were part of a series of attacks on local authority leaders who claim to be being hit too hard by spending reductions, with the minister saying some councils were “using the poor as a battering ram” with which to score political points.
Last night council leader Mr Forbes said the minister’s unexpected comments made it clear Mr Pickles was “feeling the heat of our lobbying.”
Mr Pickles, a senior Conservative MP, was speaking following repeated claims by the council’s Labour leader that the city was been singled out for disproportionate cuts.
As part of a £90m package of cuts designed to tackle grant reductions and rising bills Newcastle Council is set to axe funding for venues such as the Theatre Royal, although many cultural organisations have other sources of income.
Speaking to The Journal, Mr Pickles said the argument that Whitehall is to blame for individual cuts was wrong, saying it was for local council leaders to make their own decisions.
Mr Pickles said: “If Newcastle has decided to make a point to cut the arts, and I’m pleased on one level it’s not elderly services, but people need to understand that pride in your area, its cultural inheritance, is important. But if Newcastle Council thinks that by doing this people will march on London then they are wrong.
“They will not be here as there is only one reason there have been these particular cuts and that’s because it is Nick’s decision.
“What the council needs to do is start viewing arts as a serious money raising industry. The message that Nick is sending, he is sending to me, and yet really he should be talking to the people of Newcastle.
“When he was coming to see myself and Vince and the deputy prime minister he wasn’t saying any of these things about cuts then. He was talking about a proper partnership and how they were going to manage.
“So, I’m not impressed and it’s time Nick took some of the responsibility onto his own shoulders and dealt with it. And if Nick can’t deal with it he should stand aside and let someone else do it.”
Newcastle has already saved more than £100m over the last three years and will be looking at back office services yet again to make the additional £90m of savings.
Asked what else Mr Forbes should cut to save art services, Mr Pickles said: “I can’t make those decisions for him, but I might look at procurement, at how back room services and administration are funded. I might actually get out of the habit of just saying what I am going to cut. The amount of money in Newcastle makes them the size, economically, of Belgium. It has options.”
Mr Forbes last night hit back at the claims, saying that “as leader of the city council it is my job to fight for Newcastle and if Mr Pickles does not like that then I make no apology.
“It is his responsibility to listen to us and engage with us in a more meaningful way.”
Mr Forbes added: “The reality is families are really hurting, particularly in areas with higher levels of deprivation like Newcastle, and I genuinely do not believe that the Government cares because they are deliberately pursuing a policy of austerity despite the evidence that it isn’t working and is damaging the economy – and that is deeply worrying for families who are already struggling to get by.
“Our heat maps have provided hard evidence of the consequences of the cuts, and these have been backed by the independent Audit Commission’s report Tough Times 2012 which shows that the areas of greatest deprivation are suffering the most from the attack on public services.”