Brian Ferguson: A lesson in how not to execute funding cuts

Pupils from City of Edinburgh Music School protest outside Edinburgh's City Chambers. Picture: Greg Macvean
Pupils from City of Edinburgh Music School protest outside Edinburgh's City Chambers. Picture: Greg Macvean
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I’ve come across a few embarrassing climb-downs in my time.

But the swift abandonment of plans to close down the City of Edinburgh Music School will really take some beating.

The row over the sudden threat by Edinburgh City Council to pull the plug on the specialist provision offered at Broughton High School would seem to fall firmly into the category of “easily avoided”.

It is something of a mystery exactly who was responsible for such a PR disaster, even though the buck undoubtedly stops with the leaders of the SNP and Labour groups who are supposed to be running the city.

It became clear very quickly in the wake of the news leaking out that the vast majority of Edinburgh’s elected politicians were given little or no detail of why the internationally-renowned facility was a contender for closure - other than to help save money. If anyone in a senior position thought such a proposal would avoid huge controversy they have been given a very painful lesson.

The fact the local authority receives direct funding from the Scottish Government to run the music school as a national centre of excellence meant the plan looked badly flawed from the outset.

By the time Nicola Sturgeon was being asked about its fate at Holyrood the closure plan looked dead and buried - quite an achievement given that the SNP is the biggest party on the council.

As the First Minister was urging the council to “reflect very carefully”, politicians of all parties were virtually falling over themselves outside posing for pictures with protesting students.

To add to the sense of farce, the closure plan is still officially on the table, even though it appears obvious it has next to no political support.

A few things are rather telling from the way the above events have unfolded. There was a remarkably quick turnaround in the face of a well-run, aggressive and canny campaign by parents and pupils, and the support they won from a number of high-profile figures, appalled at the apparent ignorance over the value of the specialist teaching and the low value being placed on the arts by those in charge of a major cultural city.

It may have taken aback some politicians that people in Edinburgh are so passionate about cultural provision. It should not really be a surprise given the latest research shows that 78 per cent of people in Edinburgh think its festivals make the city a better place to live and 63 per cent of residents take part in the festivals, which sell around half of their tickets to people with postcodes in the city.

While there is no protection for arts funding in the city, its leaders have been given a clear message that it is by no means regarded as some kind of luxury.

That may provide food for thought in other local authorities wrestling with how to save millions without inflicting serious reputational damage.

The music school campaign carefully targeted politicians at almost every level to make their case - while all the time the clock was ticking. With most councillors, MPs and MSPs engaged on social media, there is no hiding place when campaigners sense an injustice.

The success of the campaign in Edinburgh may embolden other groups formed to face future cuts around the country - but could also strike fears into those they will hold accountable.