The need to address the inequalities in funding for the Arts and Culture sector experienced by the north west was the clear message from all elected members in attendance.
Committee Chair, Sinn Fein Councillor Conor Heaney opened the discussion saying that it couldn’t be underestimated how important arts and culture is to the city and district before SDLP Councillor Rory Farrell left Maeve Walls, Director of Culture in the Department for Communities (DfC) in no doubt as to what councillors expected.
He said: “From our perspective our main focus is addressing regional inequalities and understanding the remit of this forthcoming Arts, Culture and Heritage strategy.
“In 2021 the Arts Council distributed funding to organisations and individuals based in Belfast to the tune of £19M. That same year organisations across our city and district got £1.7M so for every pound invested across Derry and Strabane nearly £11 was invested in Belfast.
“That’s not fair, that’s not balanced, and from our perspective the funding system is broken and it needs fixed. Derry was the first City of Culture, we are the second city in the North and the funding system we have is unacceptable and unsustainable.
“The co-delivery group we have met the Minister, met the Arts Council, met senior officials within DfC and they have developed a very comprehensive submission which is six pages long.
“It was sent to the Minister in December and it has a raft of proposals that could address the inequalities we face across this city and district.
“For me, and for us, there are four key proposals which could address the neglect and historic imbalance that this city and district has faced in terms of funding for our Arts and Culture sector.
“The first one is that we want to see a senior official from the Arts Council appointed with a specific remit to address regional imbalance and strategic development.
“We want to see an Arts Council office opened in this city and we want to see a ring fenced regional development fund.
“Finally we want government support for a regional arts festival based in this city and district.”
The Ballyarnett DEA councillor then put a number of questions to Ms Walls.
He asked: “If our proposals don’t make the grade, what proposals does the Department have to right this historic wrong and in terms of the strategy that’s being developed, do we have time-scale for that, because we need to know when this document is going to be produced?”
Ms Walls responded: “Nothing is wasted in the proposals you have made, they will all be taken back and reflected on.
“In regards to the strategy, it would be premature of me to set out an exact time-scale. As a general observations on the development of strategies within the Department it is between 12 and 18 months and that’s to allow for co-design and proper consultation with the Department and a whole range of stakeholders that rightly need to be part of the development and that is a process that takes time but it is very much in in the Departments interests to get it done and get it done quickly.”
Referring to the councillor’s comments on an Arts Council office opening in the council area, the Director for Culture replied:
“On the specifics of the Arts Council opening an office in the north west or directing the Arts Council to allocate to the north west I think this would not be the time for me to comment on that other than to say I will make sure those conversations I will have with the Arts Council.”
Councillor Farrell concluded: “We were the first City of Culture, it has been a long time since 2013 and the tenth anniversary is coming up next year so we look forward to engagement with DfC as a key partner to help us mark and celebrate this milestone.
“Your support will be vital and your support will be most welcome.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Patricia Logue reiterated the importance of having representation from the Arts Council in the area saying: “We’ve heard there has always been a regional imbalance with regards to the money and the evidence is there to back it up.
“It is imperative an official from the Arts Council and a sub-regional office is located in the north west, especially in this city.”
Calling for urgency in resolving the issue, DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney commented that the regional imbalance in funding ‘sends a clear message that we aren’t as important down here in the north west as Belfast is’.
Asking what the Department’s plans for investment were for the area, People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin spoke about the lack of investment in the city and district.
“Next year will mark a decade from our hosting the City of Culture and back then we were told the investment that would come would be transformative for the city and indeed many of the big parties promised it would transform things but that didn’t materialise,” he said.
“Unfortunately the Derry and Strabane district has the fourth lowest wages in the UK and pre-pandemic has 30% of its people living below the poverty line who are being disproportionately impacted now by the cost of living crisis.
“Our rail and infrastructure is still way behind where it should be. There’s been no real strategy for jobs, investment and living wage so a lot of that hope around the City of Culture wasn’t delivered on, it was very superficial and it certainly wasn’t the vast majority of people who benefited from it and that is a concern as we reach the tenth anniversary.
“In terms of going forward, what is the plan to see real investment to see real transformation of the city and greater district from the point of view of the DfC?”
The Department representative stated she was ‘unable to respond’ to the councillor’s question.
Ms Walls acknowledged the ‘great strides’ Derry City and Strabane Council have made in the last 10 years after becoming the UK City of Culture in 2013.
“That was an incredible time for the city which saw over £150M of public and private investment as well as £12.5M of support at the time from DCAL (former Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure) for cultural programming alone,” she said.
“As you prepare to mark the tenth anniversary of City of Culture and prepare once again to boldly and creatively showcase the city and its surrounding area we all look forward to the outcome.”
Local Democracy Reporter