Capital culture chief in tourist tax plea

City culture leader Richard Lewis is warning of tough times ahead without the introduction of a tourist tax.
City culture leader Richard Lewis is warning of tough times ahead without the introduction of a tourist tax.
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Edinburgh’s culture leader has warned that the Capital’s arts organisations face years of cuts and the fabric of flagship venues slipping into decline unless the city is allowed to bring in a tourist tax.

Richard Lewis said the introduction of a “cultural levy” was essential to address the city’s ageing cultural infrastructure in the face of a squeeze on public spending.

Cllr Lewis said historic cultural venues across Edinburgh were in “dire need of investment” but had little prospect of being improved or replaced without “crippling” arts organisations which rely on council funding. Millions of pounds of extra finance would also have to be raised, he added.

The SNP councillor, who has held the culture brief since 2012, said the combination of Westminster funding cuts and the impact of Brexit would lead to a “very difficult future” for arts organisations in the city unless alternative sources of income can be found for the next few years.

Mr Lewis, who was an established musician and conductor before he was elected, said he was in favour of arts and cultural provision being given statutory protection from funding cuts by the Scottish Government, but had met opposition from the local government organisation COSLA.

He said: “One of the biggest issues I’ve had to deal with in this job is that culture is a non-statutory service. It means that when you have a debate in the council you’re up against big spending departments which have protection on this when the council’s funding is being squeezed.

“I’ve raised the issue within COSLA about having a debate on giving culture services some form of statutory protection.

"I was told it is not their policy as it would be central government telling local authorities what to do. But we really need those weapons of protection and it’s something we want to look at.

“It’s utterly inadequate to the tasks we have at the moment. My fear is that if we don’t have that statutory protection, that’s where we will head in future.

“Politicians are locked into a bit of a cycle at the moment, where they think that health and education are the issues that people think are important and vote on.

"But I think people are not as one-dimensional as that. I think they do see the benefits of investing across the board. Where the debate sits at the moment in the council is incredibly unhelpful.”

Arts organisations have been warned to expect a ten per cent cut in their funding over the space of four years.

These include the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe and the city’s book and visual arts festivals, as well as venues like the Royal Lyceum and Traverse theatres, the Queen’s Hall, the Scottish Poetry Library and the Edinburgh World City of Literature Trust.

Earlier this year, a new lobby group representing the city’s major cultural venues threw their weight behind the idea of a tourist tax for the first time, describing it as “a necessity”.

The city council is banking on a proposed “City Region Deal”, with the UK and Scottish governments signalling the green light to introduce some form of levy, despite the prospect being opposed by a host of leading tourism organisations.

Mr Lewis said: “The debate over some kind of levy has been raging since at least 2004. My biggest headache among the various challenges we’re facing is less on the revenue side, it is more about an ageing city centre.

“The flipside of having a UNESCO world heritage site is that most of our buildings are old and almost all of them are in dire need of investment. There needs to be a way of getting substantial new funding directed into the cultural sector. We’re simply not going to get that from revenue funding. We need to find an alternative which is not going to cripple our regularly-funded organisations in the short term.

“What I would propose is some sort of cultural levy that, whatever the sum, generates around 50 per cent for Capital projects, around 30 or 35 per cent for productions of any scale for local artists, year-round venues and the festivals, with the remainder for specific things like marketing and city dressing.

“If we can make progress on these two biggies over the course of the next administration they will really bring dividends to the city.

"Because of what is happening with Westminster budgets, austerity and the impact of Brexit, if we fail to find other levers, it will be a very difficult future.”

The city’s year-round cultural venues and organisations are said to generate £194 million for the economy, with its flagship festivals worth a further £313m.

Cllr Lewis admitted there was a strong case to re-examine the current funding hierarchies in the city, which have largely been in place for years, admitting the city’s festivals had long been seen as a priority.

He added: “It is quite confusing for people outside Scotland to see that most of the biggest national performing arts companies, like Scottish Opera and the National Theatre of Scotland, are not based in the capital city. As a council we have tended to put all our eggs in the one basket in terms of the festival set-up we have throughout the year. It is a reflection of how Edinburgh has developed in a peculiar way.

“I think people in the cultural sector are talking a lot more together, we are beginning to take a year-round approach for the first time in some ways and a lot of the silos in the cultural sector are beginning to be broken down.

“But we have a real balancing act in terms of the maintaining existing funded organisations. This year I literally had £6000 from a £9m budget to be creative with, it was a laughably small amount.

“I passionately believe we should not just be talking about maintaining existing art forms. We’ve got to have a way of subsidising and supporting art forms of the future. If we don’t find extra revenue then we will simply not be able to do it. No-one would thank us if we pulled the rug from under existing funded organisations to speculatively throw money into other areas and see part of the economy of the city potentially die.”

Council leaders in Edinburgh have long harboured ambitions to bring in some form of tourist tax or visitor levy.

The main aim is to help relieve the financial burden on the local authority of hosting some of Scotland’s most lucrative and iconic events.

But senior figures believe the business sector, and in particular hotel operators, should either help meet the city’s costs involved in the festivals or help support the city’s artistic infrastructure.

However previous efforts have been thwarted by opposition from powerful organisations like the Scottish Tourism Alliance, the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group and the British Hospitality Association.

They fears towns and cities across Scotland will roll out their own tourist tax if Edinburgh secures permission for some form of scheme in a proposed City Region Deal being considered by the governments in London and Westminster.

A spokeswoman for the city council said: “Edinburgh is world famous for its cultural offering.

"We’re currently in discussions with the UK and Scottish governments as part of City Region Deal negotiations to find innovative ways to continue to fund this important contributor to the Scottish economy.

"The cultural grants programme supports the city’s festivals and arts activities which create a rich cultural experience throughout the city every day.

"The programme has been agreed with the support of all the organisations involved and reflects our ongoing open communication with the sector.”