Why the tourist tax must be ring-fenced for culture – Richard Lewis

Composer and former SNP councillor Richard Lewis, who drew up plans for a cultural levy in 2016, says the funds raised should be used to support creative industries.

It was heartening to see recently that the principle of a tourist tax or cultural levy – something I was leading on during my five years in office in Edinburgh – has now finally been accepted by the Scottish Government in their most recent budget.

This is no little due to the efforts of the present leader of Edinburgh council who has tirelessly worked to advance the cause – even during a time in which there are many other challenges facing his administration, largely as the result of the continuing austerity agenda being advanced by the Westminster Government.

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Now, during my time as cultural convener for Edinburgh, it was almost unanimously agreed across the parties – the Tories being the lone, if unsurprising, exception – that some sort of tourist levy simply had to be pursued. Whether it was called the transient visitor levy (TVL), the cultural levy or tourist tax, it was widely agreed that the need for such a tax – particularly in an age of austerity where less and less money was going to areas such as culture, cultural infrastructure and events – was an urgent necessity if the city was to stave off inevitable decline due to the running down of its cultural and events spaces.

(Picture: Ian Rutherford)(Picture: Ian Rutherford)
(Picture: Ian Rutherford)

And let’s not forget, it is culture and events which are responsible for much of Edinburgh’s wealthy and signifies its ‘USP’ to the outside world. We are members of the ‘World Cites Forum’ largely by virtue of the strength of our festivals and events reputation, and our overseas image is squarely as that of a ‘festival city’. And yet, despite this, spending to maintain this reputation has been largely cosmetic over the last 20 years – restoring the Usher Hall, Assembly Rooms and some of the city museums and libraries – with no major new cultural piece of infrastructure being built since perhaps the Traverse Theatre in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, major structural work will be required on the King’s Theatre, the Central Library, the Lyceum and Traverse theatres, the Filmhouse, the Leith Theatre and the council museums and galleries. And that’s before one begins to consider plans for new venues – something of a necessity in a city in which the vast majority of our cultural estate was built pre-1945 and where, globally, the cultural and entertainment world has changed beyond recognition since then.

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Yet, as the grim logic of austerity has continued since 2008, fewer and fewer funds have been allocated to address these concerns. And while it has never been easy in the political world to make an argument for a cultural or entertainment venue when schools and health and social care are continually crying out for further investment, over the last decade this has become nigh on impossible. And this at a time when the physical demands on our buildings are reaching breaking point.

Therefore, with both national and local government finances only likely to deteriorate further with Brexit, the cultural levy has now become a necessity. For only a couple of pounds on each hotel room per night, the city can create a fund which allows the sort of sustainable planning to the cultural sector that is standard in much of Europe and the rest of the world.

The plan I submitted to government in 2016 for a cultural levy was designed to mirror the council’s housing revenue account (HRA) in being a resource specifically ring-fenced for cultural and event spending – and for that purpose alone. It would be divided between infrastructure – roughly 60 per cent of the fund) spending on cultural or event content at roughly 30 per cent and 10 per cent for city dressing and promotion.

The intention of the plan was threefold. First, it would reassure a sceptical hotel and tourism sector that the council, having raised the money for cultural and event spending, would indeed allocate the funds to rejuvenate these services and not divert them to other issues. This is of utmost importance, since I heard numerous speeches during my time as convener from fellow councillors who were only too keen to get their hands on these funds – and then spend them on other issues.

Second, I proposed that the group managing the funds would be linked to, but separate from, the council in being comprised of councillors, hoteliers, the tourism sector and members of the city’s cultural and events community. Collectively, they would sit on a panel at arms-length from the council and decide where the spending should take place. This meant any discussion around new investment could remain outwith the usual political process and long-term decisions about cultural priorities could be made in an atmosphere of ‘relative’ calm. This was and is a plan I still believe the hotel, political and cultural sectors should get behind. To the cultural sector, it offers dependable funding at a time when it is desperately needed, while the hotel and accommodation sectors have assurance the money will be spent on the venues which bring in much of their business in the first place and won’t just disappear due to a sudden shift in political priorities. Finally, politicians are freed from having to juxtapose the merits of building cultural venues as against hospitals and schools – an impossible contest in which there can only ever be one winner.

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Now, like many sectors of local government spending, since 2008 arts and events have suffered either no growth or real-terms cuts to their funding. When I was in office, we would congratulate ourselves if we got through a budget having achieved ‘no additional cuts’ to the zero per cent increase imposed year after year.

And remember this is not simply about bricks and mortar – the arts are currently estimated to be Britain’s second biggest export to the rest of the world. This will only remain the case if our young people continue to have access to top-quality artistic content, educational opportunities and the quality infrastructure that their parents took for granted.

Internationally the picture is rather different. Both France and Germany have increased arts and events spending significantly over the last decade, while China has a five-year plan in which tens of billions of extra money will be spent on both infrastructure and artistic content. The world has not simply stood still since 2008 and nor should we.

And while Edinburgh’s cultural levy wouldn’t create anything like the same sums, it will perhaps mean a city so used to just trying to hold onto what it presently has, can once again begin to dream about it might have.

Will the long-talked-about flexible performance space at Ingliston – able to host pop concerts and festival performances – finally come to fruition? Will a new home for the Film Festival finally take shape? Will Edinburgh – city of festivals – build its first fully professional rehearsal facility and will our events spaces begin to match those of comparable cities in the world?

Can Edinburgh – with the world’s biggest arts festival – aspire to having a top-performing arts college located in the city, generating more home grown content and becoming a magnet for artists all year round?

In short, setting up the ‘cultural levy’ will not a be panacea for everything, but it will perhaps allows us once again to bring ‘ambition’ back to the political vocabulary where, for the last decade at least, it has been largely absent.

Richard Lewis is a conductor, composer and pianist and a former SNP councillor who served as culture and sport convener on Edinburgh council.