Lee Hall Protests to Newcastle City Council

Peter Lathan

Following the announcement that Newcastle City Council is considering closing public libraries and cutting its arts budget completely (see our news story), playwright Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, The Pitmen Painters) has written an open letter to the Leader of the Council, Nick Forbes:

Dear Nick Forbes

I am writing to urge you in the strongest possible terms to rethink the the recently announced programme of library closures. I can see the council is in an invidious pos
ition. The Coalition's programme of austerity is wrongheaded, self-defeating and vastly unfair. However, a Labour administration which would even consider closing all local libraries travesties the history of the Party and the Labour movement. For more than a century Libraries have been central to a vision that ordinary lives are blighted if they are denied access to learning and culture. The idea that a library should be at the heart of the community from the pit-head libraries of the late Victorian Age to the library van that used to arrive once a week in Walkerville when I was young was at the centre of the vision of the just and civilised society we were all trying to build.

This notion that the library was central to our lives survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, Thatcher and any number of philistine administrations. If these closures go through on your watch I believe it will be a scar on your legacy you will regret for the rest of your political life. These are difficult times but they require much more canny solutions. Although removing the libraries will take away vital support for the poor and the elderly who use them as a daily resource (inevitably putting the strain on many of the council's other budgets) few people will actually die. But you will kill generation after generation of kids who, denied access to culture, science, business, technology or art, will not become the scientists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, writers or psychiatrists who will sustain the region, protect the vulnerable, kickstart the economy and provide a civilised environment for us all regardless of how economically underprivileged we are. You consign these individuals to a life of underachievement but you condemn the people of the City to decades of economic and cultural sclerosis which will be just as real and devastating.

It is clear that since the death of heavy industry on Tyneside that the City has survived by rethinking itself. By promoting its cultural legacy it has found a pride and prosperity that seemed obscure and unthinkable only a few years ago. The rumoured cuts in the Library Service and the Arts budget seem to be stabbing yourself in the heart. The effects of Art and Culture in the City have very real and demonstrably positive economic effects but what remains unaccounted is the sense of pride, raised spirits, a culture of innovation, forward thinking, cohesion and fortitude which when removed will prove enormously costly both economically and spiritually.

Culture is not an add on, culture is not for the privileged. It is who we are collectively, it is our conscience and it is the air we breathe, it has always been seen by those on the Left, and certainly in the Labour Party, as fundamentally important as Health and Education. Indeed it is an index of how healthy we are and the guarantor of how healthy we will become. I believe you are making a catastrophic personal and political decision. If you close the door on this legacy it will never reopen.

I hope that the recent announcement is merely a political posture to shame the Coalition into facing the consequences of their ill thought through fiscal policy. You must not go through with this. Your job is to protect and provide for local people - you must find other ways to resist and protest. The irony that Amazon evades the very taxes which could support core services like libraries would appear to presage an age when culture and learning are a privatised pursuit of the few. We must not let that happen.

These are extremely difficult times and they demand much more imaginative and radical responses than acting as the Coalition's henchmen. Working men and women in the North East have fought, generation after generation, for the right to read and grow intellectually, culturally and socially. For the right to be as 'civilised' as anyone else. It is a heritage that took decades and decades to come to fruition but will be wiped out in a moment. You are not only about to make philistines of yourselves, but philistines of us all.

Yours sincerely,

Lee Hall