When George Osborne initiated sweeping austerity cuts in the wake of the financial collapse it soon became apparent that the arts would be the first on the chopping board. Unlike hospitals, policing and defence the creative sectors don’t have the immediacy or even the public sensitivity boasted by their counterparts, and so with relatively little fuss cash spent on museums, libraries, dance and music was taken away.
It’s hard to quantify the effect that has had on communities. Where we know four million people are now forced to use food banks, the number of homeless people has ballooned and there are more people than ever on zero hour contracts there is no number that accounts for the loss of arts other than those showing how increasingly inaccessible it is becoming to most people. According to Guardian report the cost of music lessons in Pembrokeshire, for example, has risen by up to £4 an hour with an additional travel cost of around £60 per pupil per term for transport to ensemble practices which was previously free, all as a result of Pembrokeshire county council music service needing to cut their funding.
But as Steve Arnott said at the first London screening of A Northern Soul last night, “if you stop the creative stuff at a young age it shuts something off in a child’s brain”, leaving it less imaginative, open and active. The documentary by filmmaker Sean McAllister follows factory worker Steve as he tries to engage young people in hip-hop with a “Beats Bus” that takes music to people living in council estates and in schools potentially untouched by the cultural hubs in the centre of Hull. It shines a much-needed light on the impact of austerity not only on basic living provisions, but on long-term issues such as the mental wellbeing of communities stripped of creative outlets.
Filmed in the year Hull officially became the City of Culture, the film reflects on the changes to a city hit by cuts in public spending and divided by Brexit. In McAllister’s words, it asks whether someone like Steve can, against the odds, “unlock the opportunities to build a better life as well as whether social mobility is possible in cities like Hull”. And the answers are as brazen and honest as they ought to be.
In a typically candid and thorough approach McAllister exposes the harsh reality of life for ambitious soles in the North, giving a “warts and all” appraisal of the challenges they face. With financial constraints never far away, testing family circumstances and tough working conditions Arnott is faced with significant obstacles in reaching his dream, which even by his own admission is more for the benefit for other people than himself.
But that is what makes him all the more endearing. It’s clear from the start that Arnott cares a great deal for the children he takes under his wing and wants to give them opportunities that might not have been afforded to him at the same age. He gives them an outlet, he gives them confidence and he gives them belief by using the same tools that have been stripped from many communities by austerity cuts. If only policymakers had the same intuition we might find ourselves in a less precarious situation than the one we face today.