Photography: Gareth Arrowsmith / @GarethArra

Our city’s thriving cultural underground has become increasingly under fire. In last month’s Bido Lito!, Tom George considered how Liverpool City Council could be seen to have “placed corporate profit at the forefront, to the detriment of an organic culture.” As if to hammer home the point, Liverpool City Council have since removed the discretionary business rates relief that had been in place for all Social Enterprises and Community Interest Companies (which include many of our city’s core cultural organisations), leaving most with bills running into the thousands.

This decision was brought to wider attention by the campaign to save MelloMello, which is not only Bido Lito!’s current home but an incredibly important creative breeding ground and support hub for artists and musicians alike. Discretionary business rate relief has been a central financial pillar in helping Mello Mello flourish and its removal presents a potentially fatal scenario for the organisation. But this isn’t simply a Mello Mello problem. This new legislation could bring about the end of many independent arts organisations in Liverpool.

The list of affected businesses is ominously long, and includes galleries such as Static, Wolstenhome Creative Space and the Royal Standard; bookshops like News from Nowhere; community filmmaking projects like First Take; independent arts schools like the Milap Festival Trust; and even festival organisations like the Comedy Trust. Just take a second to think about how different it would look around here without them. Go on. Not great, is it?

However, according to Deputy Mayor Paul Brant, there has been no change in legislation:

“A lot of confusion has arisen because people don’t understand the system.  It’s a very complicated issue.  Business rates are set nationally by central government, but collected locally.  Money is then sent to the government who pool it collectively, and redistribute a proportion back to local authorities. People think they’re paying their rates to the council, but in reality we only indirectly get to see the benefits. Local authorities have the ability to give discretionary rate relief, but in the wake of massive budget cuts this is one of the spending areas coming under scrutiny across the country.”

The tidal wave of indignation that greeted the council in the wake of MelloMello’s plight appears to have subsided slightly, with the announcement that the council have offered considered advice regarding taking up charitable status as a means of staying in business. As Brant states, “There’s a scheme of mandatory exemptions from business rates for registered charities that are set and funded nationally.” But is this really the answer for everyone? Simply turn into a charity?

Caroline Smith and Priya Sharma, curators of Wolstenholme Creative Space, don’t think so. “There’s a distinct difference between a charity and a not-for-profit organisation. If we were forced to become a charity to survive I think we’d have to take a back seat, as it would fundamentally change what we set out to achieve with our business.” 

We will be left with dull, grey identikit high streets populated by dull, grey soulless people. Tesco Art Gallery, anyone?

Liverpool City Council are having to deal with more cuts than any other council.  £141m has been slashed from the budget in the last eighteen months, with another £50m still to be found by the end of next year, despite being voted Britain’s most deprived local authority for two years running.

Cllr Brant admits “We have had to make some extremely tough budget choices. Difficult decisions had to be taken over business rate relief, as we looked to align applications with the priorities of the council, such as vulnerable adults and children.”  Smith acknowledges the council don’t have it easy. “It can become a very clouded issue when trying to decide which business genuinely help the community.” Sharma agrees: “If they haven’t got the resources to investigate each individual organisation, using charitable status as a guideline does at least make it easier for them to process.”

However, Brant insists that they haven’t given up on the arts: “Liverpool City Council still prioritises a significant amount of funds to the arts, and indeed we’re recognised by the Arts Council as one of the major contributors in the country.”

It’s true that £3.6m was given by the council to 47 different organisations in June as part of the Arts and Cultural Investment Programme, but those figures are put into perspective when it’s noted that over 70% of that money went to just four organisations – The Royal Philharmonic Society, The Everyman & Playhouse, the Bluecoat and the Liverpool Biennial. All worthy causes, but hardly what you’d call small grass-roots organisations. 

As Rob Longson from MelloMello rightly states: “We don’t want to be taking food from the mouths of children”, but there’s a feeling amongst many that help from the council is only available to those with large resources that will obviously re-generate revenue. Longson continues: “When our application [for rate relief] was declined, the only initial advice we got was to think about reviewing our current prices. We didn’t want to price out the very people we set out to support.”

Dave Evans of the Royal Standard Gallery concurs: “We understand the council has to make savings, but don’t think that hitting small volunteer led arts organisations is the best way. Liverpool’s status as a vibrant, creative city is a big draw; it would be good for everyone who contributes significantly to get recognised, instead of being put under extra pressure.”  As Sharma puts it, “Every viable business should aim to make some profit, but if your aims aren’t primarily profit based, then you’re forced to fight harder to stay true to them.”

If our arts organisations are being forced into making such compromises, it’s easy to imagine their complete extinction in a few short years; replaced by the kind of businesses that don’t have any problems with ethical dilemmas. We will be left with dull, grey identikit high streets populated by dull, grey soulless people. Tesco Art Gallery, anyone?

While Liverpool City Council can’t shoulder all the blame for the budget cuts, in making such a drastic cut to discretionary rate relief – from 80% discount to 0% – they’ve not just pulled the rug out from under Social Enterprises, they’ve then hit them with it. There’s been a distinct lack of forethought or cohesion, especially when it comes to the muddled mess that passes for communication.

Evans had a familiar story to tell: “It was only after weeks of constant badgering that we were able to open a dialogue with the council. The whole process seemed quite opaque”. Smith and Sharma received bailiff letters before they finally got to speak to someone in a position to help. At least Cllr Brant is willing to admit mistakes have been made: “We could always do more to help, but it’s hard to create sweeping legislations because everyone’s situation is different.” 

So where does this leave us? Dave Evans’ bleak prognosis may not be too far off the mark: “Under pressure and less able to do what we do best – be innovative and draw attention to the region for the right reasons”. There’s a depressing inevitability about all this, as it doesn’t need me to tell you that this recession has dented every part of our lives. The war against the homogenisation of our city centres is being waged up and down the country, and a city as renowned yet deprived as Liverpool is always going to be easy prey for big business.

What Liverpool has – and will always have – in its favour is people who believe in the arts, and are willing to take a chance, no matter how the odds are stacked against them. And as it stands, Liverpool still has the power to attract people with that same drive and desire from all over the country. Let’s hope that’s enough.

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