Corporate capture: the dismantling of London’s youth arts

How the city’s youth arts provision is being undermined by privatisation.

At least in the UK, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a convenient alibi for the increasing privatisation of public sector provision. This is perhaps most evident in health care, where private providers like Serco are continuing to take over NHS services, and running them (incompetently) for private profit. It’s also apparent in education, where new provision of online learning and tutoring has been driven by powerful ed tech companies who are seizing the opportunity to ‘reimagine’ education in commercial terms. Right into the heart of central government, there is increasing use of private consultancy companies in preference to the established civil service. In some instances, under the guise of a national emergency, proper processes of competitive tendering and procurement have been bypassed: work has been diverted to government cronies, and ‘dark money’ has found its way to close friends of Conservative politicians and to party donors.

Similar things have been going on in the arts and media sectors. There has been a fair amount of discussion of the government’s failure to support freelancers and smaller live arts venues. However, the pandemic has also been used by managers of larger national arts organisations to ‘downsize’ and outsource staffing. Bodies like London’s Southbank arts centre and Tate have seen mass redundancies, in which staff have been treated with astonishing contempt. Evidence suggests that this has particularly impacted on those who are on causal or ‘zero hours’ contracts, and on Black and ethnic minority staff. Government support, where it has appeared, has often proven inadequate and arrived too late.

This situation has also affected less high-profile and less glamorous parts of the sector. In this post, I want to look at the impact on grassroots community arts projects, and particularly on the youth arts sector. Over the past several months, I’ve been gathering information about the fate of a number of well-established London organisations that provide classes and workshops in performing arts, visual arts and media, mainly to disadvantaged young people. I’ve uncovered some very disturbing developments, which add up to a story of corporate capture: commercial interests are gradually taking over public sector provision, with an almost total lack of public accountability. Several leading youth arts organisations in London have seen their established staff and facilities dismantled, and their aims and methods of working fundamentally redefined. They are being subjected to a form of asset stripping, in which public money is increasingly being diverted into private hands.

I’m not sure if this is happening elsewhere in the country: as we’ll see, there are some particular factors in play in the capital, due to the value of real estate. But I would be surprised if it wasn’t. These recent developments are merely the latest stage in a process of privatisation that has been going on for several years: for some, the pandemic is just the latest business opportunity.

Most of the organisations I’ve been hearing about are long-established, neighbourhood facilities that specifically cater to young people from disadvantaged or low-income backgrounds: in several instances, their core constituency is drawn from Black and ethnic minority communities. These organisations largely arose out of the counter-culture of the 1970s, and were given a significant boost by the ‘municipal socialism’ of the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority during the late 1970s and 1980s (before both were abolished by Thatcher). The growth of this sector also reflected the broader extension of professional youth (social) work – a sector that has effectively been decimated over the last ten years. Aside from their general leisure provision, several of these organisations have played a key role in enabling disadvantaged young people to move into key roles in the creative industries – industries in which (as this recent book reminds us) such groups are still very poorly represented.

These are sometimes called ‘voluntary sector’ organisations, in that they provide services and facilities that go beyond statutory or compulsory provision (like schools). Legally, they are charities, although they are largely dependent on public funding from a range of sources, including local government, London-wide bodies like the Mayor’s Office, charitable trusts and foundations, and (more problematically) the Arts Council. In some cases, they also rely on philanthropic private funds, individual donations and legacies – although these typically make up a small proportion of their funding.

With the austerity policies that followed the 2009 financial crash, several such organisations went to the wall. However, those that have survived (and those I have information about) mostly have new or refurbished buildings – buildings that have been funded through national programmes like the Lottery, as well as through local government support (notably from the former London Development Agency). In several cases, this has enabled these organisations to generate income from building rentals to counteract falls in public funding of programmes.

The organisations I’m describing are run by boards of voluntary trustees, who appoint senior staff. The actual remit of trustees is very variable – although it is clear that in many cases (perhaps increasingly) they see themselves not as advisers or ‘critical friends’ but as managers of key staff. Trustees themselves are sometimes appointed through public advertisement and recruitment; although this recruitment process itself is often run by existing trustees, and in many cases new trustees are simply invited or co-opted.

The governance of these organisations is fairly diverse, but there is no necessary requirement for boards of trustees to represent the constituencies they serve, or to be accountable to them. Some organisations have ‘members’ from the community, but in some instances the only members are the trustees themselves. The relevant regulatory body is the Charity Commission – a body that has come under some considerable criticism in recent years. The Commission operates largely in responsive mode – that is, in response to complaints: it imposes minimal reporting requirements on charities, and its approach might generously be described as ‘light touch’. Overall, this lack of accountability makes it very easy for organisations of this kind to be captured by outside interests, including corporate ones.

I can’t name the six or seven organisations I’ve been told about, because in many cases the staff concerned have been forced to leave and sign non-disclosure agreements, or are precariously employed. (However, if there are any investigative journalists reading this, I’d happily put them in contact with some useful informants…). Yet when taken together, there are some recurring patterns.

In most cases, we’re talking about organisations that have recently seen a very rapid turn-over of trustees.  New trustees have been brought in, primarily from the financial services sector: hedge fund managers, real estate agents, management consultants, accountants and the like. These new trustees are mostly lacking in expertise with young people, in education or social work, or in the arts – or indeed in experience in the disadvantaged communities such projects serve. They are often first-time trustees, with no experience of the voluntary sector either. In many cases, existing trustees, often with strong community links, have been gradually forced to resign.

The trustees then move on to force out long-standing founders, and other long-term staff. They replace them with chief executives, who are typically paid (sometimes on a consultancy basis) well above the norm for the sector, and several multiples of what rank-and-file staff are paid. Free or low-cost programmes are then run down, in favour of programmes that will prove more accessible to an affluent, middle-class client group: in some instances, the ethnic mix of the young people has skewed significantly towards the White and the privately educated. In effect, this is a process of gentrification.

In the organisations I’m describing, these developments have typically occurred quite rapidly – over the past couple of years – and in quite a planned and concerted manner. They are not just coincidental. Two further aspects are particularly notable in this respect. Firstly, I have been able to trace networks of trustees, consultants and newly-employed senior staff that link and cut across organisations. (A similar process of networking has played a significant role in the privatisation of education as well.)  Trustees from one organisation are hired as chief executives or consultants at another; there are individuals who serve as trustees on several boards; and in some cases there would appear to be potential conflicts of interest between these roles and their private businesses.

In several instances, it appears that Arts Council officers have worked in collaboration with trustees, using promises of funding (or withdrawal of funding) to leverage changes that the board wants. (Interestingly, it appears that several of these organisations have also employed former Arts Council officers, or engaged them as trustees – suggesting a rather close relationship with a key potential funder.) In tracing this on the (quite limited) Charity Commission website, I was struck by how the same names kept recurring – and yet the Commission itself does not appear to have been sufficiently concerned to investigate this.

The second issue here goes back to the question of property. As I’ve noted, several of these organisations were very successful in raising funds for new buildings and facilities, especially during the 2000s. Many of them occupy (and in several cases own) very valuable real estate in prime locations, often in newly gentrifying areas of the city. It’s surely no coincidence that among the prime movers of these developments are trustees with substantial private interests as property developers, architects and consultants.

The processes I’ve been describing would probably not surprise those who have been studying the wider privatisation of public services. In the case of the education system, Pat Thomson’s recent book School Scandals explains how privatisation has opened the door to what is essentially corruption; while Warwick Mansell’s excellent website Education Uncovered regularly provides up-to-the minute examples. In this case, however, we are dealing with a much more diverse, less well-organised sector, where accountability and regulation are very limited, and employment is frequently precarious – yet this is a sector that, in some instances, also has valuable assets. In many respects, youth arts are a very soft target indeed.

The developments I’ve been describing are a culmination of a longer history, for which the pandemic provides a convenient alibi. If there is an ideology driving what’s happening, it can probably be dated back to the ‘new public management’ that emerged under New Labour. Several of the new breed of trustees seem to be motivated by the idea that public sector provision is by definition inefficient and wasteful. Like Blair and his followers, they seem to believe that the private sector (and particularly the financial services industry) is uniquely able to bring about efficiency in the public sector. Under their new trustees, the management of these organisations has been reorganised according to corporate models, and redefined in line with a form of corporate rhetoric that is often bizarrely inappropriate when working with disadvantaged young people. As one chair of trustees told the long-standing founder of her organisation before showing her the door, ‘we are industrialising a cottage industry’.

These forms of corporate capture – and the redirection of public resources into private hands – raise much broader issues about democracy. But at ground level, they seem to be primarily about extending further privilege to those who already have it. This is a situation that is already having very damaging consequences for the disadvantaged young people these organisations have traditionally served. As with other areas of the public sector that have suffered under the pandemic, one wonders how much will be left when we reach the other side…