Cuts and bruises

In his Comprehensive Spending Review last week, Chancellor George Osborne radically slashed public sector budgets, mapping out £81bn in savings over the next four years. Angus Montgomery assesses the impact on design

The Comprehensive Spending Review, announced last week by Chancellor George Osborne, marked the time when all the speculation, rumours and leaks were replaced with certainty about the scale of the cuts set to hit the public sector.

Well, some certainty at least – Government departments are still unpicking the detail of which services they can continue to provide with starkly reduced budgets, newspapers are still running features looking at how much better or worse off the theoretical family will be following the CSR and individual business sectors are trying to work out which of the welter of cuts will hit them hardest and which may pass them by.

The design industry had an early indication of what lay in store with the decision – announced in the week before the CSR – to strip the Design Council of its status as a non-departmental Government body and turn it into an independent charity. If the recommendations from the Temple Review are accepted in full then the Design Council is set to become a much smaller body with a reduced grant from Government and will have to leave its Covent Garden offices, possibly to move in with the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

In line with predictions of mass redundancies across the public sector (490 000 over four years), the headcount at the Design Council is predicted to drop by half, from 60 to 30. Deputy chief executive David Godber has already announced he will leave, in a move unrelated to the Temple Review, and further high-profile departures are surely on the cards.

With its leaner structure, the Design Council says it will take a role as a ’facilitator’ of design rather than a ’provider’, a move that has been positively received by some observers, predominantly those in other design industry bodies. However, Clive Grinyer, director of customer experience at Cisco and former director of design and innovation at the Design Council, points out that, coupled with the abolition of regional development agencies and the winding down of many DesigningDemand schemes, the platform for the promotion and application of design to both Government and society at large has been severely reduced.

Grinyer’s point is one that many others are taking in following the CSR. The industry might not be much worse off with a reduced Design Council, but what about the effects of cuts across the board? As an example of grass-roots impact, Peter Spence, director of the South Coast Design Forum, says that regional bodies such as his are facing a reduction in funding from traditional sources such as universities and the RDAs and that design consultancies are having to pick up the slack in this funding at a time when they are scraping around for cash to keep their own businesses going.

The situation outlined by Spence is the Big Society – the assumption that services previously supported by the public purse can now be delivered by private investment or voluntary work. Emily Campbell, director of design at the Royal Society for Arts, maintains, the effects of the application of this keystone coalition policy on some aspects of the design sector could be seismic. She says, ’Socially conscious designers are going to have to find surrogates for public funding in local and distributed economies, possibly working for lower fees or “in-kind” remuneration. We may lose a lot of the relatively ambiguous consultancy work (in service design, for example) that public spending has permitted in recent years and see more emphasis on product and practical action, inventiveness and ingenuity.’

While an emphasis on ingenuity is undoubtedly a good thing, Esther Carder, partner at accountant Kingston Smith W1, points out that this potential change will have to be faced by an industry lacking in confidence and income. She says, ’Many marketing services businesses have already seen income nose-dive since the recession hit and many have reacted quickly and realigned their cost base, meaning the number of casualties has been fewer than expected. However, with margins in the design sector already weakened, continued pressure from procurement on value for money will mean that times will continue to be tough.’

Along with the effect on industry, the CSR could alter design education beyond recognition. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says it is reducing funding to higher education by 40 per cent over the next four years, with funding for science, technology, engineering and mathematics ringfenced. The knock-on effect of this will be that non-Stem subjects, including design, will be hit even harder. The recent Browne Review on higher education recommended removing the cap on tuition fees, leading to speculation that fees for humanities and arts courses could spiral. Jocelyn Bailey, manager of the Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group, says, ’Could this lead to an odd subject/class divide, thereby exacerbating the culture/class divide? [This] could make the design industry ever more the preserve of the affluent middle classes.’

Paul Thompson, rector of the Royal College of Art, says, ’The arts and humanities faculties of British universities are the spawning ground for Britain’s creative talent. The Browne Review’s proposal (endorsed by the CSR) to withdraw teaching funding from the arts, humanities and design courses of universities would have a long-term, negative impact on the creative economy of the UK. How can we foster the next Jonathan Ive if Government funding for design in higher education is withdrawn?’

As many have correctly pointed out, the inherent ingenuity of the design industry has weathered recessions before, but the next four years of cuts – the deepest since demobilisation following World War II – are an almost unprecedented test. Campbell says, ’Of course, the private sector has always produced designs of great social usefulness, but the Modern Movement furnished us with so many archetypes of great Governmental patronage that it’s very difficult to unhitch the idea of socially useful design from the idea of enlightened, heroic public commissioning and public funding. The situation is brutal in comparison to what we’ve become used to, but it’s going to be a real test of design’s usefulness in hard times.’

Departmental cuts
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: resource budget to be cut by 25%. Administration budget to be cut by 40%. 40% reduction in funding to higher education (excluding Stem subjects). Regional Development Agencies scrapped and Design Council to become independent charity

Department for Culture, Media and Sport: resource budget to be cut by 24 %. Capital budget to be reduced by 32 %. Administration budget to be reduced by 41%. Funding for 2012 Olympics maintained, as well as for extensions to Tate Modern and British Museum

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