Rod McPhee: Welcome windfall in time of austerity

IT may not have bleeped loudly on your radar, but bosses at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds were this week handed a one-off payment close to £1.5m.

In an era of spending cuts it's a significant sum in addition to their usual, albeit depleting, funding streams. As most institutions are forced to slash budgets, should they have been awarded the grant? It's a point worth discussing.

The Arts Council cash was allotted specifically for the organisation to carry out "research and development" rather than plug the gap caused by impending funding cuts for everyday running costs.

This may well raise some eyebrows among smaller organisations who are just battling to survive those same funding cuts.

Phoenix, the contemporary dance company who are neighbours to the Playhouse on Quarry Hill, is particularly fearful of the talked-about 30 per cent reduction in Arts Council spending. If that's brought in, it could wipe them out.

It almost goes without saying that everyone from local authorities to police forces are already looking at cutting jobs and services to balance the books.

So the somewhat vague term "research and development" will heighten disdain among sceptics. Even those who assume the concept represents a genuine investment may think that it's a luxury we just can't afford right now.

But there are several counter-arguments worth making here. The most important is that this 1.46m (to be spent over the two years) isn't government cash, it's cash directly from the lottery, which was set up to part-fund the arts.

Furthermore, similarly large amounts of funding have already been spent on other arts projects in Leeds.

Over the last decade Arts Council England (ACE) have dished out 2.1m to help rejuvenate Leeds Grand Theatre, rebuild the adjacent Assembly Rooms and provided Opera North with a permanent home.

They've gone some way towards providing Northern Ballet and the aforementioned Phoenix Dance with a brand new HQ thanks to a whopping 4m from ACE.

And lottery cash will also foot a 3m chunk of the bill for renovating the City Varieties in Leeds city centre.

So it's fair to say it's about time West Yorkshire Playhouse was allowed to make a similarly fresh start.

It's also true to say that all of the above have resulted in the revival or construction of buildings for the relevant bodies, i.e. they have something solid to show for the spent funds.

But West Yorkshire Playhouse plans to use its funding to effectively create a new, more robust playhouse within the existing building. It could be argued this actually represents greater value for money.


How will they achieve this? Well, for example, they'll investigate attracting more sponsorship at a time when the Government is increasingly pushing for greater private arts financing and organisational independence.

In other words they are, in part, spending money to make money and, ultimately, saving the taxpayer cash. But it requires investment in more staff, equipment and research.

As for the timing, that's something of a non-argument. So long as the Arts Council exists – and even a cash-strapped Conservative government hasn't scrapped it – they must continue to fund projects like this or their existence is pointless.

So, as we all start to feel the pain of economic recovery, it's now over to West Yorkshire Playhouse to ensure they spend wisely. After two years time they'd better have something to show for the money and the trust that's been invested in them.

Farewell then, relic of the past

LIKE a much-loved, sentiment-laden banger blocking the drive and spoiling the view of your home, you just know it has to go.

This week developers of the Trinity shopping and leisure complex in Leeds will start to dismantle the bridges and escalator which currently bottlenecks the bottom of Albion Street in the city centre.

Although it ain't pretty, or even a unique vestige of 1960s design, it is somewhat distinctive in that it's one of the few remaining examples of the era that's left on our streets.

Does that mean it should be preserved for posterity? Er, no.

Land Securities are right to tear it down and whatever replaces the current steel and concrete growth will hopefully restore the key thoroughfare close to its former glory.

Although the Trinity scheme looks very impressive, I doubt we'll be able to recreate that Victorian grandeur. Shame.

Down to earth with a gazump

AS the reality of reduced mortgage approvals hits a generation of potential first-time buyers, the switch to letting properties in Leeds is becoming more extreme.

As mentioned in Notes from the City before, rentable city living apartments are increasingly hard to find, which has seen the revival of a phenomenon once synonymous with the 1980s – gazumping.

In case you aren't familiar with the concept, this is where you make a verbal agreement to take a property based on paying out a certain sum, only to find someone has trumped you by offering a higher sum.

Worse still, as economic recovery remains relatively slow and no new city living projects are due to come online soon, we'll see even more gazumping in 2011.

Good luck, folks.

The City of London at dusk. Hansteen Holdings plans to return �580m to shareholders by the end of the year. Photo:  Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

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