What’s not to like about Walsall? It has the stunning Lazienki Palace, a beautiful baroque Market Place and a museum commemorating the birthplace of Poland’s greatest composer Frederic Chopin.
At least that was what I was expecting.
There must have been an error in programming my SatNav as I ended up in a right shithole near Birmingham instead.
I wandered down the main shopping street, looking for the famous baroque market place. However, the greasy aromas wafting from KFC, McDonalds and Greggs were fogging my senses. So I asked a gentleman of the street, who was enjoying the cocktail hour at 10am, as to where all the art and architecture was.
He looked confused and clasped his cider to his chest protectively. I reassured him that I wasn’t attempting to steal his treasured can of the local brew.
“Art and architecture?”, I enquired again.
He spoke in something resembling English, “Yow mean that poncy art gallery?”, and pointed to the end of the road.
And so it was that I found myself in one of the finest regional art galleries in England which is the New Art Gallery in Walsall. The permanent collection includes pieces by Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne and a large collection of the sculptor Jacob Epstein’s work. It was all generously gifted to Walsall Council in 1973 by Epstein’s widow. To house all this wonderful art, an architectural masterpiece of a gallery was built in 2000. It was paid for by the National Lottery Fund and the EEC (see, it did have its uses).
So now the gallery stands proudly, like a beacon of civilisation in a wasteland of run-down mediocrity and retail parks.
However, and here’s a big ‘However’, it is under threat of closure. Walsall Council wants to save money and they have mooted terminating the gallery’s annual funding. Like most councils in the UK, when the going gets tough they blame central government and scare their local populations with the prospect of ‘sharp-end’ service cuts e.g. your bins will be collected once a decade.
This is called ‘Politics’.
What most councils neglect to highlight, including Walsall, is the vast amount of ‘blunt-end’ money they fritter on senior council jobs and consultants (although they call them ‘Interims’, to avoid being accused of spending money on consultants). In doing this Walsall is ‘no different to any other council’…and this is an excuse they all use to justify themselves.
This is called ‘Parity’
Walsall pay their Town Clerk (sorry, CEO) £190k per year. The UK’s Prime Minister earns £50k less for running a slightly bigger operation than Walsall. I wonder what she has to say about parity.
It’s not just the boss, as the six senior managers at Walsall Council bag £737k between them. They’ve also just appointed an ‘Interim Transformation Manager’ on a six month contract for £75k (that’s £150k per year), and this was on top of appointing an ‘Interim Director for Change and Governance’ that works out at £200k per year.
As I say, Walsall isn’t alone (parity again). So how did all this salary nonsense in the public sector ever happen?
Years ago the public sector decided that they wanted to attract smarter managers from the private sector. As the economy was in a bit of a boom, and surely it would always stay that way, they upped all the salaries and created loads of new positions with unfathomable job titles.
So did the people on all these salaries come from Apple, O2 or EasyJet? Nope. They all come from other councils, and they still do. They usually arrive on an interim contract, write a report then bugger off to another council. It’s a bit like a perverse merry-go-round at the public’s expense, and you can see how well it has all worked by the current state of Walsall. Council’s always talk about ‘the future’ by the way, as it’s much easier to talk about something that hasn’t happened rather than something that is happening.
Today’s excuse for the high salaries is that they need to keep these ‘high-flyers’ in the public sector. I can only assume that Apple, O2 and EasyJet are queuing round the block to employ people on obscene salaries that have never been responsible for making dollar one in their lives.
So back to Walsall’s landmark gallery. It costs £194k per year to run, which is roughly the same as an Interim Director for Change and Governance.
However, if they’ve really got their hearts set on another Interim Thingumabob perhaps the Council should indeed close the gallery and donate their amazing art collection to Warsaw in Poland.
I think I’d rather go there to see it anyway.
p.s. I’m sure Walsall Council has a Head of PR, earning more than the Head of PR for Microsoft, that will be ready to remind us that “Walsall is fast becoming a progressive modern community”….and not in danger of becoming an even bigger shithole without an art gallery.