When a group of the most important finds from the Staffordshire Hoard went on display at Birmingham Museum in 2009 an astonishing 65,000 people waited in line, sometimes for hours, in what many would argue is Britain’s greatest industrial City, to see the remarkable testament to the skills of 7th Century metal workers. It was a classic example of how heritage and local passion can come together with the skills of curators archaeologists educators and designers to create a sense of excitement in learning and pride in place. However, now, just weeks after the opening of a new gallery dedicated to the Staffordshire Hoard, a gallery principally funded by a £750,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Birmingham City Council is consulting on an £850,000 cut to the funding of Birmingham Museums and Galleries which could lead to restricted opening hours, fewer eduction services and almost certainly job losses.
The proposed cuts in Birmingham follow the pattern of cuts all over the UK which have been brought about by Chancellor George Osborne’s programme of austerity. A policy which the Chancellors political opponents now argue is morphing into an ideallogical drive to reduce the size of State provision and involvement in services across the board from Health and Welfare to the Arts, Culture and Heritage. Indeed, both Birmingham’s Labour Council and Trades Unions agree that the the fault lies in Westminster, not Birmingham Town Hall.
Ravi Subramanian,West Midlands regional secretary of UNISON , was quoted by the Birmingham Post as saying “UNISON are clear that these job losses are as a direct result of this Tory-led government.
“They are targeting councils in the North and the Midlands with massive cuts to government grants. Government cuts means Birmingham has a cut in spending power of over £145 per dwelling, whilst in the Tory run Buckinghamshire, Windsor, Hampshire and Wokingham they actually have an increase in spending power. How can that be fair?”
Meanwhile in September 2014 the Leader of the Council, Sir Albert Bore, explained the scale of the problem, also to the Birmingham Post “There is a ticking time bomb under this council. Already our workforce has declined from just over 20,000 to around 13,000. By 2018, we estimate that numbers will have to fall to around 7,000.
“This means we will be operating with a workforce less than one third the size of that in 2010 and one half of what it is today. The equivalent of taking out twice the workforce that lost their jobs at Longbridge in 2005.”
In a stark illustration of what is at risk the Council is also proposing to cut more than half of the jobs at the newly built Flagship £188 million Birmingham Library, which also houses the city’s historical archives, as well as reducing opening hours by almost half from 72, to 40. Critics of the cuts argue that it remains to be seen how a library which is effectively can only open office hours of eight hours a day, five days a week, can serve the many different groups of users from young children, pensioners and professional researchers who generally need daytime services, to older school students and users with daytime jobs who might wish to use the library service in the evening.
Within that overall cutback the cut to the Museums and Galleries Service might appear relatively small. However, campaigners argue that the cultural sector punches far above its weight in terms of contributions to the local economy. A petition launched on the website change.org claims that volunteer time equates to a financial value of £700,000 and that each visit to a site operated by Birmingham Museums Trust is worth £30 to the local economy.
However, defenders of the Government stance point to the inefficiencies and poor decisions highlighted in the deeply critical report commissioned by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles from Sir Bob Kerslake, the former head of the Civil Service. The Kerslake report claimed that “We recognise there are huge financial challenges, but too often it sees itself as a victim and it needs to stop.”
Mr Pickles went further as he welcomed the report, telling Parliament that “For too long the council has been a dysfunctional organisation which has failed to get to grips with the problems its faces and the economic challenges of the future. It must stop looking to central government to bail it out and come up with innovative solutions itself.
“Now is not a time for the council to feel sorry for itself, but to start providing the leadership, skills and services its people need as the best authorities are doing across the country.
Commentators argue that all this tit for tat point scoring does is illustrate the tactics of the two major parties in forthcoming General Election. The Labour Party blames the Government for cuts to services, the Conservatives claim it is an economic necessity and that besides the decisions on what ot spend where are made by local authorities, not by Government. It is also pointed out that the West Midlands of which Birmingham is a part, is a key battleground with many marginal seats which could represent the difference between forming a Government or becoming the opposition.
Meanwhile, in the face of what many regard as short term political expediency, campaigners point to the long term damage that the cut programmes may be doing. In particular the figure form the 2014 Cuts Report, published in November, which noted that “31% of museums have suffered a fall in the number of school visits in the past year [2013-2014]. The number of children visiting a museum or gallery in England has dropped nearly 10% since 2009-10.”