Newham council rejects using 0.03% of reserves to fund arts

by James Ivens, Equity, North and East London general branch

I was part of the deputation from the North and East London branch of performing arts union Equity to a Newham Council cabinet meeting. Sadly, Labour mayor Rokhsana Fiaz refused to respond to our proposal for further discussion on arts funding at the former Stratford Circus arts centre.

Campaigning to save Stratford Circus
Campaigning to save Newham’s Stratford Circus, October 2021
Photo: Mary Finch

We again made several clear proposals:

  • Replace the lost public funding
  • Ensure a home for the displaced groups
  • Reconsider the centre’s name
  • Support a democratic cultural conference of the arts groups, unions and local working-class community
  • Reopen discussions with the union

They ignored them all.

The council say that Newham only has £9 million in reserves. The union is calling for at least £190,000 for the arts centre. Even if Newham really only had £9 million, that could satisfy our starting proposal for 47 years!

The truth is that Newham has £616 million in usable reserves, but has chosen to allocate only £9 million of that into its ‘general fund’. By changing the way other sections of reserves are ‘earmarked’, the council could invest that and more in the arts for several centuries!

But we’re not saying spend reserves and that’s that. Cabinet members asked why we were not campaigning for central government to give Newham more money? We are!

Our proposal is that Newham spends (at least) 0.03% of its reserves, and sends the bill to Westminster. Pass the crisis up to the Tory government, not down to trade union members and the working class.

Biggest protest yet to save Stratford Circus


by Mary Finch, Waltham Forest Socialist Party

Over 70 trade unionists, arts workers and community campaigners turned out for the second protest in defence of Stratford Circus arts centre on 16 October. The Labour council in Newham, east London, closed Stratford Circus during the pandemic, to reopen it as a ‘youth zone’.

But the council has been cutting youth services for years, and Stratford Circus already ran youth drama. This attack will mean the loss of local arts jobs, and it’s already lost £300,000 a year of existing funding for Stratford Circus from Arts Council England.

Save Stratford Circus.
Photo: Mary Finch

The campaign is led by the union for performing arts workers, Equity. Socialist Party member James Ivens is Equity’s branch secretary in north and east London.

The council is feeling the pressure. The tender document now includes some more explicit requirements for professional arts provision, but it doesn’t guarantee full council funding.

Paul Fleming, Equity general secretary, spoke at the protest. Paul and other speakers said, to huge rounds of applause, that Stratford Circus doesn’t belong to the council, it belongs to the community and workers in Newham. There was huge support for Equity’s demand that the council use its enormous reserves to fund arts and youth services, while campaigning for the money from central government.

Local trade union councils in Newham, Waltham Forest and Hackney sent solidarity greetings to the protest. So did the rep at Oaks Park High School, where staff have been on strike against a bullying headteacher (see here). That bullying head is backed by the Labour council in Redbridge.

Several members of Blue Sky Actors expressed their anger and sadness about being forced out of Stratford Circus. This protest was a show of strength and a warning to Newham Council – we will not go away. Equity, Blue Sky Actors, the Socialist Party and the rest of the local community are united and determined to save Stratford Circus.

March to save Stratford arts jobs from Newham Labour attacks


by James Ivens, secretary, Equity North and East London General Branch

The campaign to save arts jobs in Stratford, east London, has called a second protest after the council reneged on promises yet again.

Protest outside Stratford Circus Summer 2021
Photo: East London SP

Newham Council evicted the former arts centre at Stratford Circus to satisfy a manifesto pledge of expanding youth services – which the same Labour council originally cut. This lost Newham local arts jobs and a £300,000-a-year Arts Council England grant.

Performing arts union Equity has been fighting to restore professional opportunities and funding alongside youth services. But the council has cut out the union and community at every turn.

The threat of protest got us talks in late June. The council then broke them off and dismissed our demands.

Equity’s first protest on 28 August pushed the mayor to reopen discussions. But the hostile attitude to the union was sadly evident again.

Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz unilaterally excluded one of Equity’s delegation – a parent representing a learning-disabled Equity member whose theatre company was displaced by the eviction. There was little engagement with the union’s core proposals.

But the council did commit to a schedule for further discussions – on issues including funding and rehoming displaced groups. It broke this promise.

The deadline for bids to run the new centre is 18 October. Equity had no choice but to call a second protest for Saturday 16 October.

In the context of our campaign, the council has put in writing more explicit commitments to “attracting and facilitating professional performances and other cultural activity in the building.” However, it is still offering unrealistic funding.

Far from replacing the national grant, Newham Council is only offering £270,000 – and really this is just for youth services. The council is asking bidders to supply a further £190,000.

Even this is a ‘maximum’ which could fall in future years. Never mind the council subsidising the arts – this could mean the arts subsidising the council!

Equity still maintains that a total budget of £1 million – including subsidy and sales revenue – is what the centre needs. But as a minimum, we demand the council commit to funding the full £460,000 value of the current contract, and reviewing with a view to increase in future.

Newham Council has £616 million in usable reserves. It should draw on these to end austerity now, and lead a campaign to win more funding from central government.

And it must stop ignoring Equity’s proposal for a democratic conference of the local arts organisations, unions and working-class community to set Newham’s cultural agenda.

  • March: Save Stratford Circus!
  • Saturday 16 October, assemble 1pm
  • Outside Stratford Circus, Theatre Square, London E15 1BN

Equity protest to save arts centre forces talks from Newham Council


by James Ivens, East London Socialist Party and Equity North and East London (personal capacity)

Equity’s protest to save theatre jobs at Stratford Circus arts centre was a big success. Around 50 joined a determined and positive rally on Saturday 28 August in Newham’s historic Theatre Square.

Passionate speakers explained the Circus’s value to the local working-class community – and the need to defend paid work as the arts climb out of the pandemic slump. Equity’s new general secretary Paul Fleming condemned the east London Labour council’s attacks.

Photo: Mary Finch

Staff members, performers and parents of the professional learning-disabled theatre company Blue Sky Actors attended in big numbers. Several spoke too – their continued existence is in question due to eviction from the Circus.

This included Linda Jordan, also a long-standing Labour Party activist who opposes the Labour council’s cuts, gentrification and undemocratic regime. London Labour has suspended both Newham constituency Labour parties – in reality due to their left campaigning. Socialists in Newham Labour have defied this, meeting independently as ‘Newham Socialist Labour’.

Socialist Party member Louise Cuffaro, secretary of the Newham branch of the National Education Union, also spoke. This attack will impact school theatre visits and future arts careers for local youth. Meanwhile, the council is aiding and abetting publicly run schools becoming for-profit ‘academies’.

Hannah Sell spoke for the Socialist Party, pointing out all these campaigns have a common enemy in Newham Labour austerity. East London Socialist Party proposes all the campaigns and unions meet this autumn to draw up a ‘people’s budget’ for the needs of all local workers and residents.

If Labour won’t fight for the resources needed, Newham trade unionists and campaigners should form an alliance to stand against them in May 2022. The local Greens who attended the protest would be welcome at those discussions if their candidates will commit to 100% no-cuts budgets.

It took the perceived threat of protests for the council to offer talks with Equity in the first place. Having then dismissed the union’s demands, this initial protest has pushed the council to reopen and then bring forward talks.

Even before then, the official tendering process that will ‘repurpose’ the arts centre was delayed. Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz has also withdrawn from Labour conference’s left fringe event ‘The World Transformed’. We believe this campaign is part of the pressure that caused both.

With local and national media coverage already, and plans to call a second, larger protest action, Newham Council should take note: the arts are no longer a soft target for austerity.

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