BASINGSTOKE council's newly-approved financial strategies for the coming year have led to wide-spread concerns about the arts and culture sector, including from councillors on different sides of the political spectrum.

At a full council meeting on Thursday (February 25), members approved the administration's 2021/22 budget - which saw council tax rise and budgets slashed for many services, including waste removal, public transport, and the arts sector.

As previously reported by the Gazette, the council is currently seeking to appoint a third party to run the annual B Love music festival in the town.

This outsourcing and cost-cutting is something many fear will have a negative impact on the town and, more broadly, the council’s approved budget pledges to ‘review current grants’ and move towards ‘more commercialisation’.

Cllr Elaine Still (Conservative, Chineham), who sits on the board of the Anvil trust, said the industry has been "disproportionately affected" by the pandemic and that planned cuts "make it almost impossible" for venues' education projects and community outreach work to continue.

She added: “While I will be supporting the budget this evening, I feel I need to speak out regarding my deep concern over the proposed cuts to cultural and communities budget. I am passionate about the arts and culture. Basingstoke and Deane is rich in the arts and this has come about by all the dedicated work by this Conservative administration, officers, and the amazing people that run the different organisations.

“Organisations which the council funds through this budget are a vital part of Basingstoke life. They affect positively people from every ward of the borough, they operate on very small margins and have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This cut will make it almost impossible for the Anvil and Haymarket, for example, to continue with all their work in schools, with young performers. It will mean severe cuts to projects for those with special educational needs, people with dementia, with autism , and other disabilities. The community programme reaches around £35,000 people a year. By its very nature this is essential work that cannot be done on a commercial basis.

“We know the vital importance of the arts in promoting good mental health and wellbeing among all age groups. These things are fundamental to the future of the borough.”

Speaking to the Gazette after the meeting, Cllr Andy McCormick (Labour, Brighton Hill), said he too found the plans worrying, adding: “We have got concerns about that because in the past there have always been moves to cut subsidies and, when the Anvil merger with the Haymarket was forced through we thought it would be in a perilous situation.

“The Haymarket is a Grade II listed building, but it needs looking after, it needs events, and it’s the key to the night time economy at the top of town. If you can get people into the theatre, you can expect them to have a meal before and maybe a drink after, to see shops they want to come back to at the weekend. I have some serious concerns that they are looking to cut Anvil support.”

Cllr Simon Bound, cabinet member for communities, culture and partnerships, said that "renewed level of engagement and partnership are essential" and things "need to be different going forwards" to support the arts and other sectors.

He added: “During this time, theatres, concert halls, community centres and village halls have all remained closed, apart from those playing their valuable role throughout the global pandemic. And they have been provided with unprecedented amounts of financial support whilst they have been closed, and rightly so.

“As an example, whilst their theatres have been closed the Anvil trust has received £960,000 in total from public sector grant funders. Interestingly, 80 per cent of that from Basingstoke and Deane and less than 4 per cent from Hampshire County Council.

“For them and many others, a robust and sustained plan for recovery is important. They are also the custodians of two of our most important assets, the Anvil and the Haymarket. Setting out our priorities in budget is only the first step in ensuring a long-term recovery works for all.”