It has become part of our national narrative that local authorities are under huge pressure and that only the most essential services will survive. While I have little idea about the full range of pressures that local authorities face and can only guess at what challenges the autumn spending review will present, I do know that every council is stuffed full of good and purposeful people who are trying to do the best they can and that there are things we – as theatres, arts centres and cultural organisations – can do to help them.
It requires trust, being prepared to listen, a degree of measured risk, respect, and a willingness to work with people who might sometimes have different priorities and views of the world to us. But we have to demonstrate our usefulness past our own ambition if we are going to help them make the case for continued investment in culture.
I don’t think we are ever going to win an argument that starts with, “Well, which should we fund, the arts or hospitals?”. We might want to say both, but local authorities are increasingly having to make choices between this important thing and that important thing.
I tend to no longer say I work in the arts. I speak about running an organisation that helps people feel safer, be healthier and live longer (and on my more confident days I go on to say, “and if we don’t achieve this, you can have your money back”). I guess we are trying to describe the Maltings not as a building but as a creative organisation concerned with improving the quality of life for residents – an ambition that all local authorities share.
On the basis that it is always worth spotting people being good, here are a few things that have helped us build – we think – a mutual, open and equitable relationship with a set of local authorities in South West Surrey, with Waverley Borough Council, Farnham Town Council and, at last, with Surrey County Council, in which we hope there will be few surprises.
People, of course, are at the centre of any relationship. Councillors, chief executives, board members and officers have had to listen, accept that not every point can be agreed upon and that everyone starts from a position of wanting to do their best for the community. No one gets up and thinks, “How can I make the world worse?”.
Language is important. We agreed that we should talk about investment rather than grants, which moved us to service-level agreements in which the authorities describe their cultural priorities and agree a programme of work. It certainly helps with those councillors who don’t have an interest in the arts but want to know “what their money is paying for”.
Commitment is obvious. Too often, once an agreement is made, partners are left to grow apart. We meet and talk every three months – rotating meetings between the local authority offices and ourselves, sharing note-taking and agreeing actions for both.
Any other business has become the most interesting part of any agenda. It has become something of a game to find the least likely connection. Conversations have wandered into the democratic responsibilities of local authorities, into consulting on local plans, managing the museum, combating loneliness in our rural communities and the resettling of ex-servicemen. Now discussions have extended into exploring ways of working across the whole portfolio – with libraries and adult education.
Money is usually needed to make things happen. But lots of gains have been made by starting the conversation around ambition rather than money. Having a strong partnership has allowed us to approach potential partners and funders with a coherent argument.
Listening helps. For example, when Waverley identified that there is likely to be a 30% increase in over-85s over the next 10 years in the borough, it became obvious that a strand of work needed to be developed to take account of this fact. This has led to the creation of an arts and elders programme, in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society, as well as work on combating loneliness.
It is a sign of the matureness of the partnership that when Waverley appointed its arts officer we were asked to be a full member of the panel, that both are involved in reviewing the borough’s cultural strategy, and that when other cultural organisations in the borough needed help, we agreed to work with them to rediscover their purpose and develop a sustainable model of operating – we felt it was in our interest that they thrived.
There have been other surprising elements to the relationship. During the most recent election, we hosted the hustings and organised a shadow vote for 16 and 17-year-olds. This reflected a responsibility the borough has to ensure the health of local democracy. We have worked together on developing a conversation with the local enterprise partnership, and delivered programmes of work with young parents, youth carers, scouts, young homeless and young travellers. We now offer a programme of contemporary theatre to every village in the borough and co-ordinate the Arts Partnership for the county and 11 boroughs and districts.
Of course, all of this is being done now, when we aren’t in a crisis. I don’t know what will happen if we were threatened with a change in funding. I have no idea how to run a campaign or to quickly shift opinion. In many ways, I think it would be too late then. I do know that the public is our greatest ally and that, even more than national politicians, local councillors are hugely sensitive to the opinions of their constituents. Thanking local authorities for their investment, acknowledging their support, listening and the occasional positive letter to the local paper all keep the relationship in good repair.
Winning hearts and minds happens one person at a time. A couple of years ago the town council approached the Maltings to talk about a piece of public art to mark the Queen’s Jubilee on a neglected stretch of the riverfront. It led to an open call for a £15,000 craft commission that was originally to be split three ways: between the town council, a local trust and us.
As it happened, during the selection process the trust withdrew. When the town councillor involved in the selection process – who had originally been sceptical about the idea – heard about this, she offered to make up the £5,000 shortfall personally. She did it quietly, without publicity, because she had come to recognise a genuinely shared desire to improve the quality of people’s lives and could see how this work might, in some small way, achieve that ambition. It is in those small moments that our case is best made.