Red Book, White Paper, Green Light?

Christopher Gordon of GPS Culture, whose new report is entitled The Next Steps? – a contribution to debate on a new national policy for the arts and culture in England, on his hopes for the forthcoming arts White Paper

We continue to wrestle with issues around “value” and, in particular, how Arts Council England squares the circle of its first two chartered objects: to develop and improve the knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts; and to increase accessibility of the arts to the public in England (root of the old, conflicted juxtaposing of “excellence” with “access”, as if somehow they were alternatives and not indivisible in relation to “public benefit”).

GPS Culture’s independent report Rebalancing our Cultural Capital (2013) provoked Parliament’s culture committee’s inquiry into ACE. Recommendation One in the MPs’ report states:

A strategic direction for the Arts Council would best be set by a clear overall policy statement by the government. We recommend that the government produces and publishes a comprehensive arts policy.

The chairman of that inquiry was John Whittingdale, now Secretary of State for Culture. His department is in process of producing the first government White Paper on the topic for 51 years. We should also recall that an earlier Whittingdale select committee report (Funding of the Arts and Heritage – March 2011) was clear-sighted about looming local authority uncertainties:

… we are disturbed by the number of local authorities coming forward proposing very substantial cuts, which inevitably will mean the end for a number of local arts institutions and arts events [Rec.14]

and

It is vital that, even in less densely populated parts of the country, people still have access to cultural activities. [Rec.16]

Whittingdale, in his first ministerial meeting with the culture select committee in September 2015, was asked what role he saw for the National Lottery, as Treasury funding for sports, arts and heritage faced further cuts. His response was unequivocal – that direct substitution would be against all the National Lottery’s principles, particularly at a time when money available from the tax base would be declining and that generated from the Lottery was still increasing – “it is additional benefit, and that is a principle that I support”.

GPS Culture has been arguing for a national policy to “rebalance”. This is quite separate from the case for devolution. Some have deliberately misinterpreted this – and in a confused context that condones dangerous levels of lottery substitution for self-interested motives, that’s not difficult. Given the squandering of lottery money, government must now tackle this directly. This needs to be done coherently through the Treasury grant-in-aid in relation to production, presentation and training – but we’ve also seen recently how the Chancellor can independently parachute in major capital in Manchester and London.

Next Steps? principally addresses the leadership of emerging combined authorities (and cultural organisations – in the arts, museums and libraries – based in their areas). With high level government support and an unexpectedly benign CSR settlement for the DCMS and all those funded through it, the focus remorselessly shifts onto local government’s rapidly declining capacity to fulfil its non-statutory role in cultural support.

As ACE prepared to announce its 2015-18 funding decisions it alleged that local authority cuts outside London constituted the major threat. We identified a much more exposed Achilles’ heel in London. Whereas the local government contribution to sustaining the Arts Council’s National Portfolio beyond the capital averaged out at 32%, the equivalent figure for London was only 6%.

The forthcoming White Paper provides an all too rare opportunity to contribute to future policy for our sector across the whole country. GPS hopes that our analysis and recommendations will prove useful in those discussions, and support the development across England of some common ground in expectation and ambition for a refreshed and coherent national policy framework for England’s arts and culture, very much including the contributions that can be made to national as well as to local life and people of all ages.

The White Paper needs to contain a straightforward commitment to addressing the potential of the arts and culture to play a leading role in supporting and enhancing individual and community wellbeing in the local places where we live our daily lives. Within this policy there must be a very particular emphasis on the deployment of publicly provided funds to those communities and individuals facing the greatest challenges. As we write in Next Steps?

In England there are 20,000 primary and secondary schools, 27,000 care homes, 12,000 GP group practices and health centres, 3,000 libraries and 1,400 hospitals. It is only through (often new) local and ‘combined-local’ partnerships and organisations – structured to work across sectors – that it will be possible to address the scale of the task. The challenge to engage the arts with the whole of the warp and weft of English society is huge. Without denying the importance of the ‘national culture infrastructure’ organisations in supporting delivery of these outcomes, a delivery strategy based principally on those 702 (publicly funded) organisations – for most of which these outcomes would be secondary objectives – cannot address the scale of the challenge.

Our ambition for the White Paper is that it should achieve both equity in access to opportunities for participation and learning locally and excellence in training, production and presentation for the arts and culture throughout England. This actually could be achieved through the application of five clear postulates (see panel). 

The last principle is key. By applying our analysis of principle, policy and practice in the Arts Lottery to all four ‘good causes’ we illustrate the scale of resources that could be available for more local decision making were funds raised from lottery players in particular areas of England to be retained there as they already effectively are in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Observing the subsidiarity principle and the 2007 Lottery Directions could have a massively beneficial effect on locally available resources and halt the decline.

All of the GPS Culture research reports of the last three years are available at the website www.gpsculture.co.uk  

Contributions have been posted to the DCMS’s web-based consultation at https://dcms.dialogue-app.com/

THE FIVE KEY PRINCIPLES

Subsidiarity – taking decisions on the disposition of public funding at the right level

Sustainability and diversity – economic, environmental, social and cultural

Intrinsic and instrumentalcelebrating these complementary (not competing) purposes for the public funding of arts and culture

Transparency – clear and accountable data on the sources of Lottery income – and on visitors to, and audience for, major publicly funded cultural institutions

Distinctiveness of National Lottery funds – ethically different, distinct from, and not to be used as a substitute for, Treasury (taxation-sourced) funding

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