As ever, you have to look for the small print in the Budget to find out what it might mean to the arts, and on the face of it there’s nothing nasty in the woodpile this time. There’s £53m for the Royal College of Art’s new Battersea campus; £20m for northern cities to bid to for hosting the Great Exhibition of the North, as promised in the autumn statement; £20m to do up our cathedrals, ditto; £19m for a new Shakespeare theatre at Knowsley on Merseyside; £14m for the STEAMhouse in Birmingham; £13m for Hull for its year as City of Culture next year; £5m for the V&A’s £81m Dundee design museum.
There are tax breaks for museums, with regional ones that don’t charge for admission eligible for VAT rebates like the nationals are, and touring exhibitions will get the same concession.
And then it starts to get foggy. The Lloyd George Museum at Criccieth in North Wales, the great man’s birthplace, is funded by the local authority which, in its straits, had opted to cut its grant and probably close it. So the Chancellor has decided to give the museum the same amount, £27,000. Nothing for the five Lancashire museums that are closing or any of the others under threat by beleaguered councils.
Why single that one out for special treatment? We can only guess, but this rather paltry amount should keep the place open until 2020, by which time we will have forgotten the centenary of the First World War. It would be an international embarrassment to see the closure now of the place devoted to the memory of the leader that saw us through that most catastrophic of conflicts. There was already encouraging news in that there had been a move to get the place nationalised and the Welsh government is thinking about making it part of the National Museum of Wales. Yet George Osborne felt it was politic to put his paddle in and stir it up a bit.
But the Chancellor’s fiddling about with business rate relief for small concerns means that local authorities, which with the other hand he has given the right to retain business rate income, means that councils will be, by the calculation of John Kampfner’s Creative Industries Federation, £7bn worse off. And what is the non-statutory responsibility local authorities have that is easiest to cut? You got it.
Which makes Ed Vaizey’s culture white paper, due this spring, even more interesting. He has said there would be something to address the conundrum of local authority arts funding so one hopes it will show how these odd bits of a jigsaw puzzle might fit together, and though Vaizey has said that in parliamentary terms spring lasts from about February to October, the word is that publication is imminent. We’ll see.