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Department of Culture Manchester and Sport

The blue plaque to stand-up comic Les Dawson
(Most famous feature of the Palace Theatre, Manchester)

An interesting call from a LondonJazz reader who likes my Opera House story, particularly because it is- as ever- a demonstration of the ocean-like disparity between public funding into jazz and that into opera, with their similar-sized audiences…… The Arts Council in most years and by most measures spends between 40 and 60 times on the latter what it spends on the former….

He tells me the latest. Arts Council-funded consultants are running around with an “evaluative study” and now a report trying to persuade the world at large that a theatre in Manchester currently most famous for its blue plaque to comedian Les Dawson absolutely needs an uncertain amount somewhere north of £100m spent on it, plus roughly £10m a year subsidy…. And that the end-result, wait for it, will be that the Royal Opera will be able to create some additional jobs in the North, and thereby demonstrate that it is a national opera company!

It all seems, my caller thinks, like a script for an episode of Yes, Minister. Both the current DCMS Secretary of State Andy Burnham and his immediate predecessor James Purnell represent Manchester constituencies. So DCMS civil servants have found a means to sweeten up their Secretaries of State while they remain in office. The ministers can keep in the public eye a juicy appetising mother-in-law of a DCMS-led capital project in, guess where, Manchester.

But the consultant has buried a nice bit of deliberate sabotage! In the following vintage paragraph he alludes to the fact that the DCMS/ACE have proved to be collectively so goddam useless at running capital projects, that wherever they set a “budget”, costs inevitably and inexorably spiral and loop completely out of control:

The Capital costs of the refurbishment of the Palace Theatre are stated to be of the order of £70m-£85m in the proposal. In making a decision in principle on whether to develop plans further, ACE should be mindful of its experience of similar works on heritage buildings. It is expected that it will consult in due course its partners at the Heritage Lottery Fund. At this stage everyone should be assuming a likely level of final expenditure of the order of £100m, although that should not be the agreed budget figure (if it is, the final cost will be higher).”

The consultant also notes that the Royal Opera’s estimates of the annual black hole to fill with subsidy fall in conveniently just below eight figures, at precisely £9,616,377.

What would Les Dawson- or indeed your average jazz musician think about these lavish plans? “My family was so poor that if I hadn’t been born a boy, I wouldn’t have had anything to play with.”

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