Ghosts of Christmas future

With the nation in turmoil, Gail Brown wonders what would constitute an ideal Christmas gift for the sport, leisure and culture sector.

Little cause for dancing under a new cash-strapped regime?

As we near the completion of 2010 it seems incredible that there has been so much change for every possible sector in this, the land of the United Kingdom. The terrain itself has undergone tremendous challenges: Cornwall flooded yet again, London tube strikes grinding the city that never sleeps to a frustrated slumber and the south east enjoying a dignified goodnight to the autumn leaves while for the citizens of Scotland winter began weeks ago. Will this be our winter of greatest discontent or a true time of hibernation and rebirth?

2010 has brought a vast array of political calamity. The public sector has taken an extreme beating, redundancies are rife and for those in the sector who have kept their jobs a pay rise is unlikely. The attitude among chief executives seems to suggest that everybody ought to be grateful to have a job, never mind asking for a pay rise. Has anyone heard of a morale boost or incentive focused reward; banking bonus anyone? This seems all too reminiscent of Christmas’ greatest villain, Ebeneezer Scrooge. Of course, our private and third sector chums are undergoing equally challenging times as they try to make up the ever-growing gap between public sector delivery and community needs.

Over the last 12 months the British public seems to have been systematically pushed out onto the window ledge, where, in the style of Indiana Jones, you can take a leap of faith and discover a hidden bridge to the other side or potentially plummet down the ravine. The dawn of the coalition, Cameron’s camera crew, his increasingly dishevelled appearance and penchant for keeping his hands in his pockets while chewing gum is not perhaps what people anticipated when they voted. Nor did anybody foresee the return of students rioting in a fantastically aggressive manner, the likes of which have not been seen since the 80s.
There is a strong sense of injustice in the world as cuts are made and spending discouraged. Education is under the cosh and for the first time in a long time colleagues in that sector have been discussing the concept of the return of the polytechnic, the trade school or indeed the youth training scheme (YTS). Colleagues from the Department of Health and the NHS are waiting to discover what their fate will hold: a return to the local authority or working within the new GP commissioning groups? Prevention or cure will be the argument that rages over the health white paper, a document that will inform the fate of hundreds of thousands of adults working in the care and health system, all of whom may well feel as if they are on one of two lists, naughty or nice.

There is a persistent whiff of disbelief and anger and without doubt people are feeling extremes of emotions. Now that the festive season beckons the economy may well get a short, sharp boost but come January there will be hell to pay. Credit card bills, overdraft fees and late payment notices will fill hallways once littered with Christmas cards and snacks for Rudolph. Surely now is the time for everybody to just stop, look and listen to one another and work out what the country actually needs.
As families pull back the curtains on Christmas Day to discover what weather gifts Mother Nature has brought and check the dwindled pile under the budget tree, what gifts would really make a difference to our sector? What would a Christmas miracle look like for the arts? Under the Christmas tree of culture there are three gifts that could make a difference. The first would be that once and for all culture and art could find a way to clearly evidence the difference that the work that they do makes, that it enhances quality of life, helps the world go round and makes the world a better place. The more often culture can work with other partners (and it already does at an incredible rate with health, education, volunteers, sport, housing, regeneration, the police and anybody else that needs some inspiration and leadership) the better; partnership is key. Number two, unsurprisingly, would be a big box of resources: spaces, places, time and money, continued investment and some bankers coming forward to take the paper lining out of their Prada suits and put it into local arts would be marvellous. This gift is in two parts as you have to spend money to make money and the more investors there are, the bigger the return and the more likely that culture will continue to be recognised as a statutory requirement not “nice to do”. It is after all the fastest growing sector in the world with a higher return than even finance. Finally, you need the people: the artists, the participants and even the PR behind the arts machine. This box would be filled with artists, creative leaders, communities and their stuffed stockings filled with cultural and arts experiences that are consistent from generation to generation, across income levels, where equality exists and there are no boundaries to achieving what makes you happy.

Cameron might be on to something when it comes to measuring happiness. This is entirely valid but if he and his lackeys can work out how to turn the UK and its current economic situation around then Santa may indeed exist. If Cameron gets this wrong and citizens around the country get coal in their stockings, then he could well be the prime minister that stole Christmas. So if in the summer you managed to mark X in the ballot box for a man that does exist and you didn’t quite get what you wished for, you might at this time of snowy contemplation consider writing a letter to man that may or may not exist because in times of doubt and regardless of what you believe a little bit of faith and a Christmas miracle might be possible, even if it is only in the house or street that you live in. Send your letter to Santa Claus, the North Pole.

Gail Brown is chair of advocacy and research for the National Association of Local Government Arts Officers

For previous columns by Gail Brown visit the comment page

The Leisure Review, December/January

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“If Cameron gets this wrong and citizens around the country get coal in their stockings, then he could well be the prime minister that stole Christmas.”

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