Contestable regional grants might sound dull in theory, but they’re responsible for a ridiculous amount of community arts, culture and events. (Image: Archi Banal)
Contestable regional grants might sound dull in theory, but they’re responsible for a ridiculous amount of community arts, culture and events. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyDecember 14, 2022

A city without culture: What Wayne Brown’s plans mean for Auckland

Contestable regional grants might sound dull in theory, but they’re responsible for a ridiculous amount of community arts, culture and events. (Image: Archi Banal)
Contestable regional grants might sound dull in theory, but they’re responsible for a ridiculous amount of community arts, culture and events. (Image: Archi Banal)

Mayor Wayne Brown last week announced a proposal which would see $60m of cutbacks for Auckland Council, including a complete discontinuation of regional contestable grants. Sam Brooks reports on the impact that would have on the city.

If you’ve been to an event at the Auckland Writers Festival, a show at Basement Theatre or a day at Polyfest, you have attended something that was made possible by a contestable grant. Provided by Auckland Council, contestable grants are responsible for supporting everything from an exhibition at Objectspace to some of the city’s largest festivals, like Auckland Pride, and even contribute to the Farmers Santa Parade. These grants have now been put up for the chop in mayor Wayne Brown’s latest budget proposal.

Released publicly last Monday, the proposal, which aims to fill a $295m hole in the budget, includes advice from staff to discontinue all contestable regional grants. $60m of the hole is set to be filled via “operational savings”, so providing less services than the council currently provides.

The discontinuation of contestable grants would make up $8m of that $60m cutback. It also suggests the removal of another $20m from community, social innovation and economic development programmes. This proposal goes to council for discussion tomorrow (Thursday 15 December), where councillors will decide on budget items for public consultation, which will occur in March 2023. 

Contestable regional grants, which exist in various forms across every New Zealand city, are a core part of a council’s work; they enable funding to be given to groups and organisations to achieve community outcomes that council might not be equipped or best suited to achieve.

Auckland’s current grants were established in 2014 under mayor Len Brown, when the council acknowledged a gap in their capabilities. The policy – literally titled Community Grant Policy – reads: “Having a community grants programme is an explicit acknowledgement that the world’s most liveable city cannot be created by Auckland Council acting alone. … These community-led organisations are experts in their respective fields, and able to mobilise a range of relationships and resources to achieve their goals.”

These grants include the Regional Events Grants (supporting diverse strategic events that showcase Auckland), the Regional Arts and Culture Grants (building sustainability of organisations, engaging digital participation in arts and culture, supporting the creative economy) and the Environment and Natural Heritage Grants (protection, restoration and enhancement of significant natural heritage areas).

That sounds like a lot of non-specific funding jargon, but in short: these community grants ensure that all the things that make up a vibrant, lively city actually happen.

Hawaiian group from Manurewa High School at Polyfest. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

The staff advice to mayor Brown acknowledges that a “reduction in funding” (in this case, a reduction to zero) will result in “fewer activities and services”. It also acknowledges that communities in Auckland will be affected by the reduction of those services and activities, especially the communities that have a greater reliance on these funding streams. The risks acknowledged include reputational risk – although it is suggested that engagement with community groups will help mitigate that – and that grant recipients that rely on the funding may need to adjust, close their funding or seek alternative funding providers.

In response to questions about these proposed cuts, the mayor’s office responded by saying that the mayor is asking local boards to work together to find 5% savings from their total budget, which is “not limited to contestable grants”. 

“Mayor Brown has asked local boards to consider their options carefully, including leases and administration costs, and to consult with their communities about what matters most.”

Councillor Richard Hills (North Shore Ward) says that the councillors don’t have all the information about what is included in the cuts to these grants, although he’s been asking for details on the fast-moving process.

“Cutting these grants would be a dramatic and concerning shift away from supporting arts, culture and community in our city, these grants often provide seed funding to attract far more investment from other organisations and funders,” he says.

He explains that the mayor has the right to propose a budget that uses “levers” such as debts, rates and savings to balance the city’s budget – and that he is trying to fill a $295m hole caused by the pandemic, rapid rises in inflation and interest rates.

Stopping the proposed cuts isn’t as simple as “not cutting it” – councillors would need to put forward another budget line to replace it. It’s important for Hills that the consultation documents allow flexibility for change in the budget, to save or increase based on community feedback. Councillors have been told that if they want to protect certain budget lines, they’ll have to propose higher rates or a different thing to cut. Every councillor will have their list of areas they want saved and prioritised – these grants are on Hill’s list.

He sums it up bluntly, and bleakly: “This is not going to be easy and we will need strong feedback from our community on what the council should prioritise.”

Auckland Pride Festival in 2021. (Photo: Auckland Pride)

Councillor Josephine Bartley (Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Ward), worries that the people who are going to suffer most from these cuts are the people that need these programmes and events the most: the community. She explains that these grants cover programmes that span a number of local boards – so they benefit the whole of Auckland, not just any specific ward. She stresses that those programmes need these grants, which are often the first and last port of call for funding for community groups and organisations.

“Without this funding, these groups are most likely not going to go ahead with their projects or programmes,” Bartley says. “Some groups actually rely on this, and the council recognises that. If this happens, they’ll end up stopping what else they were doing so the community will miss out on what they’re providing.”

“We need to think about a city that we want. A city without arts, culture, events and community is not a great city to aspire to want to be a part of. It’s quite sad, really.”

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