Balancing the regional books

Arts Council England chair Peter Bazalgette. Photo: Philippa Gedge
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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The fact that London gets a bigger slice of the arts funding cake than the rest of England is not surprising. We’ve been acknowledging it and, in some cases but not all, complaining about it for years.

One surprise is that despite that acknowledgement, the report by Christopher Gordon, Peter Stark and David Powell reveals that not only is the difference still there, it’s enormous: 5 times more arts subsidy per head goes to London than the English regions.

The other surprise about Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital is that it is written by three very well known senior arts administrators and not by the bright young things confined in a windowless think-tank. Between them, they have ratcheted up 45 years working in arts and culture, together and independently, and you could say this report has been 45 years in the making.

So here are the naked figures they have uncovered: in 2012/13, Arts Council England distributed £320 million of taxpayers' money to the arts with £20 per head of population allocated in London against £3.60 per head of population in the rest of England.

And then there’s the Lottery. The Heritage Lottery Fund were so scared of being seen to be too metropolitan that for a few years they froze grants in London, but this report only deals with ACE's lottery fund. Since the National Lottery started handing out to good causes in 1995, and by September 2 this year, ACE had handed out £3.5 billion. That’s a ratio of 60/40 in favour of the rest of England against London, but per capita it makes £165 for each Londoner, £46.77 per non-Londoner.

[pullquote]London is the big cultural earner[/pullquote]

There are plenty who argue, very rationally, that that’s the way it should be. How many other countries our geographic size have a world city? London is up there with New York, Tokyo, Moscow and Patris, while Berlin, Rome, Madrid and even Beijing are not. London is the big cultural earner, it’s the West End tourists come for, the national museums, the icons of heritage that are as familiar to peole who have never been here as the Eiffel Tower and Manhatten’s skyline. Artists gravitate to London be cause that’s where the market is.

It’s ironic, uncomfortably for the arts council, that the Balance report coincides with ACE’s own restructured ten year plan (2010-2020).

First published three years ago, Great Art for Everyone still has the same five goals – excellence, opportunity, environmental sustainability, leadership, and creative access for children and young people – but with those unfocussed aims clarified, to “help us and the wider arts and culture sector demonstrate the extraordinary work they do to create a thriving, vibrant cultural landscape” says ACE’s chief executive Alan Davey. But where is regional development in all of that?

On the Today programme, the ACE chair Peter Bazalgette, normally a very articulate sort, found himself waffling. “More should be done,” he said. “Judge us in two years’ time. The trend is towards more spending in the regions and that’s what we’ll be doing”. It sounded like he was thinking on his feet.

The truth is, regional support is very close to ACE’s thinking and perhaps they should articulate it better. Peter Stark was one of those that moulded a new and improved Arts Council attitude to the regions, with particular reference to the north east, and it was the arts council that talked Newcastle Council down from a 100% arts cut. The problem, ACE knows only too well, is the unpredictability of the local authorities around the regions, and the vindictiveness of central government determined to keep them on short commons.

The Balance report acknowledges that there has been a forging of partnerships between the likes of arts councils and local government that is the basis for a new system, whose growth will be accelerated if the broadband roll-out can be speeded up. Because, you see, digital communication will make the metropolitan concentration at many levels unnecessary.

The paper has its recommendations, but the villain of this piece is not the arts council. London and its cultural offer needs to be sustained at least at present levels, our international standing demands it and the British Council will tell you, but the cauterising of the flow of funds to the regions will eventually stop the flow of talented blood to the capital, as well as the nourishment of the community cultures that are so vibrant now.

This is not a lesson for ACE, it’s for the government, and they have not responded.