Rod McPhee: Indulgent necessity in an age of austerity

WORTH CELEBRATING: A scene from West Yorkshire Playhouse's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
WORTH CELEBRATING: A scene from West Yorkshire Playhouse's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
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Can I just point out the fact that, although times are very, very tough, we are not, in fact, in the middle of the Third World War?

That seems to be in line with the hysterical response from a few people who, with some reason, appear to be somewhat frenzied in their response to the current financial downturn.

Their answer to everything is to mercilessly wipe out virtually any non-essential service this city boasts in a desperate bid to preserve what they see as the most vital of facilities.

Why do I make this point? Well, last week a reader wrote in to grumble about the fact that West Yorkshire Playhouse had over 100 people working up on Quarry Hill, despite the fact that other spheres of public life were seeing their staff levels slashed.

All of this is correct. In fact WYP actually has about 108 full time employees and, through short-term seasonal work, keeps about another 150 people in jobs at various times throughout the year.

But the writer of said letter seemed to infer that this was outrageous, particularly given the huge numbers of people winding up in dole queues as a result of government austerity measures.

The truth is that, yes, the Playhouse, like so many other cultural organisations, gets money from Leeds City Council and the Arts Council to help with their multi-million pound running costs.

But they haven’t had any rise in that subsidy. In fact, they’ve seen the monies they receive dwindle since the recession started to bite.

As for the number of employees, they’ve also seen that drop in recent times by about 12 per cent.

So the idea that they have a vast cultural army splashing about in oceans of money is complete tosh.

Besides, what is the logic of this grumble? Is it to say that throwing another 100 to 250 people into the dole queue would somehow make us all feel better? Surely, we should celebrate, rather than criticise, an organisation which has managed to keep people in work.

Or perhaps the logic behind this grumble is that it irks people that something which is seen as indulgent, highbrow nonsense should continue to exist while care for the elderly is hit, civil servants are thrown out of work and traditional industries are left to flounder.

Ok – let’s be straight about this: culture is an indulgence. A complete indulgence. No one will die without it. No one will go cold during the winter months if it doesn’t exist, no one would starve for the lack of a good play or opera.

But culture, particularly in Leeds, is now a massive part of the economy – perhaps more so than the traditional industries which so many still think is the bedrock of a large, northern city. The arts sit at the heart of a money-spinning web of socialising and services which have helped propel this city into the 21st century.

If we don’t at least preserve institutions like West Yorkshire Playhouse – and the likes of Opera North, Phoenix Dance and Northern Ballet – then we really will be cutting our own throats.

Sure, not everyone enjoys them, but then not everyone goes to watch Leeds United play, not everyone goes to see bands perform, not everyone takes degrees and not everyone can holiday abroad. Shall we then close down Elland Road stadium, the 02 Academy, all of the city’s universities and Leeds/Bradford Airport?

The presenters of children's television programme 'Blue Peter' in 1972 (from left) Peter Purves, Lesley Judd, Valerie Singleton and John Noakes with his dog 'Shep'. PA Wire

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