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May 05 2011

Art Uncut's creative opposition to cuts can reach a broader audience | Philip Goff

We believe that a society with well-funded arts, well-funded public services and a redistribution of wealth is a better society

Some arguments between left and right are pragmatic. In these cases, there is agreement about the desired goal but a disagreement about how to achieve it; for example, it might be that both agree that we want developing countries to become richer, but disagree over whether deregulating markets is the way to achieve that goal. But some other arguments between left and right concern principle.

The day that the government's austerity measures hit arts, a debate about the issue was hosted by Channel 4 News. The participant speaking in support of the cuts to arts had a simple argument, grounded not in evidence but in principle: it's not right to take people's money off them against their volition (ie through taxation) in order to spend it on the arts. Such opinions are not uncommon these days: "it's our money, so it's wrong to take it off us." Implicit in this attitude is a belief in sacred and inviolable property rights, which any decision about how to shape society ought to respect. This view was taken to its logical conclusion by the 20th century American philosopher Robert Nozick, who held that the state ought to let the poor die rather than fund a welfare state, as this would require infringing "consenting acts of capitalism".

This belief in property rights is superstitious and primitive. It is founded in a moral conviction – akin to the belief in vengeance or honour – which humans naturally gravitate towards, but which is grounded in sentiment rather than reason. This is not to say that people don't have property rights. But whatever rights people have to "their property" are grounded in legal choices, which reflect the kind of society we choose to have. Property rights should be shaped by, rather than shape, the kind of society we want to live in.

Putting things this way round changes everything. If there are no sacrosanct rights of property, which we are duty bound to respect in our law, then we should really be focusing on what kind of society we want. Is it better to have a society in which our cultural diet is entirely determined by market forces, in which only art that has commercial value, or that happens to be favoured by the whims of the wealthy? Or is it preferable to have a society in which a fractional reduction in individuals' spending power protects the arts we collectively value and enjoy? When the choice is put so starkly, it is difficult to deny that publicly funding the arts leads to a net gain in human flourishing.

Art Uncut is founded on this principle, a belief about the kind of societal model that we believe to be better: a society with well-funded arts, well-funded public services, and where there is a certain amount of redistribution so that the gap between rich and poor does not get too wide. We began as a small group of artists and musicians involved in UK Uncut actions, but hope now to open up the anti-cuts movement to a broader audience: to those who are not temperamentally inclined to protest, or perhaps haven't made their minds up yet. If we are serious about building a broad, sustained coalition of opposition with the potential for political influence, we need to reach out.

A week before the March for the Alternative on 26 March, Art Uncut staged a sell-out creative preliminary for the march: a night of music, comedy and short talks, headlined by UK Uncut, Josie Long and The Agitator. On the day, Art Uncut and UK Uncut jointly occupied BHS on Oxford Street, turning it into an artistic space with musicians, half a dozen poets and a performance from the actors Sam and Timothy West. Moving forward, we have planned a series of events in London, and we hope to encourage others around the country to set up their own events of creative opposition.

As the cuts start to bite, the anti-cuts movement is evolving. It has not been easy so far. We have received hostility from most of the media and some of the police. But we're very determined, and have a conviction grounded in firm principles and sound economics. Let's hope that's enough. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 02 2010

The slums of tomorrow

In chasing its short-term targets for new housing, Labour is storing up a legacy of unfit homes

Channel 4, being on the cutting edge of all that's "real", has a predilection for making people live in surroundings not of their own choosing for the purpose of viewers' entertainment. It has just sent four MPs to live on council estates around Britain, with the results being broadcast, starting this week, ­under the boom-tish title Tower Block of Commons.

All that's needed to bring a nation's schadenfreude to a rolling boil is the footage of hapless Lib Dem Mark Oaten groaning, as he approaches his billet: "I'm hoping I'm not in a tower block. It is a bloody tower block." He goes on to describe his feelings about where he's spending a week in terms more suited to banishment during the cultural revolution. Fair enough, perhaps, given the project is intended in part as media ­rehabilitation for legislators.

The level of public esteem accorded to both tower blocks and politicians is, for the moment, about equal. They fester alongside charity muggers and Ryanair in what David Bowie, in the 1986 film Labyrinth, termed "the bog of eternal stench". So what would you say if you knew that the next generation of soon-to-be-loathed and unfit-for-purpose housing was being thrown up under the government's watch?

The Kickstart "housing delivery" programme, through which £400m of public money will be administered to stalled and truncated new housebuilding schemes by the Homes & Communities Agency, has been given a kicking in recent weeks by parties including the influential Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the government's adviser on building quality.

Under the first round of the programme, many schemes have been revealed as failing most of Cabe's Building for Life criteria. New developments are given ratings out of 20 according to the quality of design, surroundings, environmental credentials and ­likelihood of creating a sense of community. Some have scored as little as 1.5, with many others ­achieving 10 or less.

In effect, the government is pushing through inadequate housing schemes in order to meet its target of ­having built 3m new homes before 2020. Disenchanted professionals have taken to calling the programme ­"Building Slums for the Future" in a nod to the government's other patchy mass construction scheme, Building Schools for the Future.

Yet they're not getting the support they hoped for among other design champions. Even David Birkbeck, the chief executive of Design for Homes, an independent body, has called Kickstart "a Marshall Plan for the devastated housebuilding sector. You don't just give emergency aid to the best dressed. The HCA is right to withhold support from only the very worst".

Really? There's already plenty of appallingly unattractive and family-unfriendly new housing that's been completed during the recession without the aid of Kickstart. My favourite of these must be a high-rise orange space crumpet named The Old Bus Depot, squashed into the junction of two busy A-roads near the M6 at Lancaster. Solely comprising one- and two-bedroom flats, its balconies enjoy uninterrupted views of a PC World superstore and the bit where the A683 splits off from the A6.

Where's the commitment to usefulness, to durability and to delight, which design thinkers from Vitruvius onwards have advocated? John Healey is the latest in a long line of short-lived housing ministers for whom design and planning is just part of a new brief that has to be mastered, rather than a cause that needs pushing and defending at every turn.

Does he, like Richard Crossman in the last mass housing boom of the mid-1960s, want to push through acres of new housing that will look good for the books in the short term but fail miserably in terms of sustainability, and the ­wellbeing of residents? Or does he want to have a legacy so lasting that people remember your name and associate it – like Nye Bevan's – with the use of political power for democratising, rather than expedient, ends? We have long been used to talking about the health service in these kinds of epic terms. Now it's time for housing and planning to be treated with the same fundamental seriousness.

Good homes for all. That's all anyone needs to have in mind. Never mind making it "affordable" – we're the fourth richest country in the world, we can afford to build it, and subsidise it if need be. We could afford good housing in 1945; to say we can't now is like saying we can't afford to think of a future that isn't going to happen. It is. It just depends on what you want it to look like. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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