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Conductor Simon Rattle says cutting UK tax relief for orchestras would be a catastrophe

<span>Rattle says tax relief has been a lifeline for the City of Birmingham Orchestra, where he made his name.</span><span>Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images</span>
Rattle says tax relief has been a lifeline for the City of Birmingham Orchestra, where he made his name.Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Sir Simon Rattle, the world-renowned British conductor, has urged the government not to slash crucial tax relief for orchestras, after the collapse of regional funding for the arts.

Speaking to the Observer this ­weekend, Rattle, who made his name with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s, is calling on Westminster ­politicians not to allow classical music and the wider arts to be forgotten as a ­growing number of city and county councils face bankruptcy and decide to “defund” the arts.

“The tax relief the CBSO has had, due to go down next year, has been a lifeline. If that is reduced further, that will be the next catastrophe,” he said.

“My time at Birmingham made my musical life. I’m so proud of what they have been, and how they have developed since then.

“I realise now I was in a kind of golden age, with both ­political parties in the city supporting the arts and building a concert hall.”

Rattle, who is in London for a Barbican world premiere of a John Adams work , also condemned “the poisonous idea” that the arts are only for the elite. “It will become a self-­fulfilling prophecy if we are not careful. Everybody deserves to get the best – that was what once made this ­country so special,” he said.

“This period of austerity is not the result of a natural disaster, it is a political choice and the next round of political choices are coming up now.”

The 69-year-old conductor, who grew up in Liverpool, became music director of the CBSO in 1990, going on to conduct two of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra. He remains conductor emeritus with the LSO, although he has now returned to work in Germany.

As a result of Birmingham city council’s decision to drop all arts funding, the CBSO is losing out on £630,000 a year, an amount that the orchestra’s chief executive, Emma Stenning, described this weekend as “tough, but manageable, representing about 5% of our turnover”.

“It is not yet crisis point,” she told the Observer, “but that may soon be to come if the current rate of tax relief, worth about £2m to us, goes. Things will really start to fall over, and not just here.”

Rattle called the council cuts a ­“terrible psychological blow”.

“It says the arts are no priority at all,” he said. “We are told to accept it is no longer affordable, and I understand the ­difficult situation councils across Britain are facing.

“But we need more creative people in the country at this complex time, not fewer. Orchestras are having to adapt and have done so much already. It’s telling, isn’t it, that we have had 12 culture secretaries since 2010.”

Tony Hall, who became chair of the CBSO board in November 2023, said he believes the city is a “canary in the mine”.

“What we learn in Birmingham will soon matter across the country,” he said. “We need to make the argument for the arts even when a council is bankrupt. It is not just nice to have them. That is plain wrong. They are the answer to many problems.”

Lord Hall, a former director ­general of the BBC, is arguing for a new ­“overarching” arts plan for the ­country. “At the moment it seems there is no strategy at all.

“We need councils, the city ­mayors, the Arts Council and central ­government to talk,” he said. “And tax reliefs really must continue or we will have lost it all.”