Labour: lack of DCMS strategy is “deeply worrying”

Dan Jarvis MP
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Shadow culture minister, Labour MP Dan Jarvis, calls on the government to rethink its arts policies.

Last week, the extent of the damage being done to the arts was voiced by senior figures within the sector expressing their frustration and concern. In the words of Sir Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, the arts are now on a “knife-edge”.

What was interesting about this critique among the cultural ranks was that it was not done to argue the case for the great cultural institutions of Britain; the likes of the Royal Opera House or the National Theatre, but was focussed on protecting regional theatres and local arts organisations. The organisations which are the life blood of our more well-known institutions, as well as the bedrock for our enormously successful creative industries.

During the last generation, many local authorities and the former regional development agencies embraced the opportunity which a thriving cultural centre outside of London can offer. From the regenerated Albert Docks area in Liverpool, to the lace-cladded Nottingham Contemporary, the Hepworth in Wakefield which has attracted further private investment to the surrounding buildings, to the Turner in Margate. This investment was at the heart of local communities offering educational workshops, supporting local arts organisations and as demonstrated in Derby, encouraging more businesses to locate to the local area. Investing in the arts became a recognised mechanism to unlock and develop potential, boost morale in difficult times and provide cultural catalysts for economic growth within once grey city and town centres, outside of the capital.

While, of course, tough economic decisions need to be taken in the current climate, the arts are now under threat from a “perfect storm” which has been created by budgetary decisions taken too fast in the Comprehensive Spending Review of 2010. These consist of a trinity of cuts to Arts Council England (ACE) from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), cuts to local government, and misplaced government understanding within DCMS about philanthropic behaviour within Britain.

Since the Comprehensive Spending Review, we have seen numerous cultural organisations cut back, or close. This has happened around the country as a result of short-term decisions and a failure on behalf of the DCMS to review the long term effect on the cultural sector, or fight its corner at the Cabinet table.

ACE has recently announced how it will manage the cut to its budget by reducing the number of its staff by 21%, and halving its sites across the regions. But still, worse is yet to come as the effect of this perfect storm comes to fruition.

[pullquote]Before it is too late, David Cameron and Maria Miller must rethink these catastrophic policies[/pullquote]

Earlier this year, the Local Government Association predicted that discretionary funding streams – such as the arts and culture – may be reduced by as much as 90% by 2020. In addition, Osborne’s Autumn Statement this week announced a further cut to DCMS and a further £445 million cut in local government funding in 2014/15. This announcement is made even more acute by the staggering admission from Maria Miller that she did not have a conversation with George Osborne about the arts in preparation for the statement. For a sector which provides great economic and social rewards for each pound of investment, this lack of strategy from DCMS is deeply worrying.

It is easy to understand the anger which the arts sector feels, and those who have raised concerns should be applauded for becoming the voice of smaller, local and regional arts organisations. It was disheartening to hear that Maria Miller has failed to acknowledge their plight and claimed that much of what she heard was “pure fiction”.

Organisations from Museums Sheffield, who have warned they may need to introduce admission charges, to West Sussex County Youth Theatre, which has been shut completely, could be forgiven for seeing these comments as out of touch, and symptomatic of a department which does not care about the state of arts and culture in our country.

It is difficult to imagine today what our country would look like without our many cultural sites and access to our rich heritage. But, if DCMS continues to allow these vibrant organisations to close, the cultural map of Britain will look very different in the next few years. Before it is too late, David Cameron and Maria Miller must rethink these catastrophic policies.