The s106 Public Art nightmare

2 April 2015…..This morning on BBC Radio 4 a ‘360 Arts’ programme explored the public art aspect of’ s106 obligation which requires a developer contribution for public art provision.  Peterborough was used to provide a  competition example that resulted in the commissioning of some bespoke planters.  Not one word was devoted to what happens AFTER these objets d’art are delivered, installed and start to need either maintenance, outright repair or removal. It was all very jolly and isn’t-it-a-good-thing-to-celebrate. 
It’s not.
The s106 obligation ENDS for developers with their payments.  The local authority then has full responsibility for how it is spent.  But once spent and an object installed, that is kind of the end of their attention and their involvement.  There is no department for commissioning, installing, maintaining, removing them.  Some go into parks, others onto streets, or the seafront….  These things just sit there and age however they are going to.
Councils will get varying amounts from each development.  A few developers now seek to spend their public art bit of s106 obligation (s106 of the Planning Act) on site.  But in the main, funds go into a pot.  It must be spent in the area of the development paying it in but often single amounts are not enough to spend on anything significant.  It is an area that is not discussed a lot by either the public, councils or councillors.  But many people resent what ends up slapped up wherever. 
Some councillors during Planning Committee determinations will whine on about it and say they wish it could go on sports instead, or something else in any case. But at the policy-setting level, councils seem obliged by central government planning policy.  Or are they?  Where is the information?  Why arn’t councillors more proactively asking the questions and ‘campaigning’ on the issue?
Is there a graveyard of removed public art in local authorities?  Do they just get quietly dismantled and removed when they crumble away?  How many are treated as temporary installations and removed after a set period of time by artists themselves?  How many are repaired in any ongoing way by artists?  And is there a budget sum (out of s106 pots or council budgets) for their maintenance?  There isn’t.
Recently, Brighton & Hove City Council gave landlord consent and planning consent for the Hove Civic Society to put a plinth on the Hove Esplanade near Kings House onto which new art is to go.  And a competition was announced for finding said art to go onto it when it is built.  Will the Hove Civic Society have full ongoing legal liability for maintenance, repair, etc.?  Over what period of time?  What if it one day folds?  What then?  Or is this to be a ‘gift’ obliging BHCC to spend money on it in future.  Front line services are being cut, seafront railings left to rust and rot.  Is BHCC going to take on new liability here?  When it is struggling to look after existing liability?
At a time of seriously scary budget cuts and funding shortfall, there is a serious need for the term ‘Public Art’ to be considered.  What do we even mean by it?  Are decorative planters in Peterborough really ‘Art’?  The question of “What is Art” has vexed many in the art world for many decades now.  How is it defined for the benefit of s106 and local authority implementation?  Who gets the last word?  Not the public. 
If budget cuts now mean no new street trees are to be planted or maintained, what does it mean for public benches?  Perhaps the time has come to hive off some council services. such as benches, planters, refuse bins, etc. and plonk them into the public art category as a way of corralling and using artists and s106 cash in a more useful way. God knows we need more public seating to make being a pedestrian physically comparable with being a vehicle user!
No ‘sinking funds’ are taken and kept by for newly commissioned and installed public art; so the question of ongoing maintenance/removals costs is a serious issue that is not really addressed and neither is there the slightest interest by Govt, local authorities or campaigning policiticians to bother….that I can see.

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