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11 Sep 2017

UK arts threatened by Foreign Office's £39m cut to British Council budget

An open letter penned to Boris Johnson, Britain’s secretary of state for foreign affairs, has called on the minister to reconsider funding cuts which would force the British Council to scale back its work in developed countries, significantly affecting the UK’s culture sector.

The British Council, the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, was set up to to promote British culture and values around the world. If the decision to cut its funding – made before Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was decided – goes ahead, it will be reduced from £39m (US$51.5m, €42.9m) in 2016/17 to £13m (€17.2m) in 2018/19, and then to zero by 2019/20.

Without access to official development assistance (ODA) from the Foreign Office, the British Council will have to rely on money earned through teaching and exams, contracts and partnerships to fill this gap. The Council currently works in more than 100 countries, with 85 per cent of its turnover earned in this manner.

Penned by William Burdett-Couts – artistic director for theatre and comedy promotion company Assembly, and signed by 14 other heads of major culture projects in the UK – the open letter urges Johnson to reconsider the Council cuts so it can maintain its culture standards in what will be an important time for the UK ahead of Brexit.

“This direction of travel was set pre-Brexit, but given the events of the past year a rethink is urgently required on the part of UK government,” said the letter, highlighting the Edinburgh Festival, which draws thousands to the Scottish capital each year.

“We urge a reconsideration of the planned balance of funding to the British Council so that it can continue to play a key role across a wide range of countries, and sustain the momentum of cultural exchange and development at this critical time for the UK on the world
stage as soon as possible.”

According to the British Council’s Corporate Plan 2017-20, which also factors in losses due to Brexit, “there remains a risk and a challenge to deliver our work in the developed world."

It added: "Compared with our previous plan we estimate there will be at least £62m (US$81.8m, €68.3m) less funding available for developed countries from 2016–17 to 2020–21.”

In a statement responding to the open letter, the Foreign Office said: “We are committed to projecting UK influence around the world, including through the valuable work of the British Council.

“We are aware of the potential impact of providing the British Council with more overseas development assistance as part of its grant. We are currently working with the British Council to deliver the manifesto commitment of putting it on a secure footing, recognising the tight fiscal climate and the importance of delivering Brexit.”

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