“You’re So Vain”

In past months we’ve seen the label “Vanity Project” become the go-to term of abuse for anything that someone wants to see cancelled. How many babies are we throwing out with this bathwater?

The Palace of Versailles and the Arts Barge (the Palace of Versailles is the one on top) [picture credit: ToucanWings]
The Palace of Versailles and the Arts Barge (the Palace of Versailles is the one on top) [picture credit: ToucanWings]
At the height of French imperial power, Louis XIV built two opulent castles outside Paris surrounded by two thousand fountains powered by the most advanced hydrological machine of the era. Rameses II had a temple to himself carved out of a mountain over a period of 20 years. York’s ‘Arts Barge’ group is a non-profit company providing community access to the arts, running musical ensembles, art therapy workshops and youth theatre.

Did you spot the difference there?

It seems to be lost on some of our political colleagues. In their enthusiasm for austerity, the words “vanity project” have come to mean “anything non-essential that we don’t like”. It’s yet more of that name-calling and finger-pointing for which politicians are unfortunately famed.

The incoming Tory/Lib Dem Council administration have named two things in particular as ‘vanity projects’: the ‘Digital Media Arts’ centre plan for the Guildhall (which Dave has spoken about before), and the Arts Barge. In their same 12-point plan, they also pledged to protect Yearsley Pool. Quite right too. But the Council spends money on both – what makes the Arts Barge a “vanity project” for providing access to the arts across the community when Yearsley Pool, which provides access to physical exercise across the community, is a vital community asset? And whose vanity is it anyway?

The former Council Leader, James Alexander, was full of ideas for Council initiatives. Some of them we could support, some of them we couldn’t. The installation of public WiFi throughout the city was often cited as a vanity project of his. It wasn’t an expense we felt was justified but it is something you find in cities all over the world. It’s not vanity to want it for your city. But he earned himself a bit of a reputation. The “Reinvigorate York” project bemused people at first with its programme of bollard replacement, but then met with increasing hostility over the expensive Kings Square and Newgate Market refurbishments. There’s no doubt that Kings Square looks a bit better, but again, it’s not something we would have done. And it doesn’t contain any obvious monument to James Alexander, or indeed Sir Ron Cooke, the Reinvigorator.

We welcome the incoming administration’s intention to reinstate Ward Committees, continue to support children and youth services, and invest in recycling. But there’s five more years of Conservative cuts coming, so they may be finding many more things to label ‘vanity projects’ whilst they wield the axe.

Cllr Andy D’Agorne

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