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When it comes to arts spending, it’s London vs the rest of the UK

In the latest arts budget, 47 per cent of spending will go to London-based organisations – why does the capital’s cultural excellence have to come at the expense of projects everywhere else?

There is a parochial myth that outside London’s metropolitan centre exists a breed of Neanderthal Northerners who, clutching a Greggs pasty and standing in a bleak milieu worthy of a Shane Meadows film, have no desire to access the arts. This image, combined with the startling figure from last year that cultural spending amounted to £69 per head in London and just £4.50 per head elsewhere, illustrates the London-centric nature of UK arts funding. For this reason, there was a collective intake of breath this week as Arts Council England (ACE) announced the funding for 2015-2018. Surely, arts programmes across the regions cried, the budget discrepancies couldn’t get any worse? Surely the rest of the UK would get their fair share, rather than being lumped together as simply “Not-London”? Alas, it was not to be. The ACE reiterated once again that when it comes to culture, it is London vs The Rest of the UK, with the capital snatching 47 per cent of the total budget.

Elitism is an accusation bandied about the art world, from Saatchi to opera, but the label of exclusivity transcends galleries and genres with simple geography. The ACE have the arrogance to declare that London vs the rest of the UK is an equal match worth fighting, and one in which funds can be distributed equally between the two. The extensive nature of their report proves that despite their attempts to disguise the vicious nature of the cuts with a garish pink font, the ACE cannot claim ignorance about the existence of a 14:1 imbalance of London’s arts budget compared to the rest of England. The existence of both an “ACE National” Twitter account and an “ACE London” Twitter account is telling and leads to the question of why two accounts are even needed when “Arts Council England” is now synonymous with just London.

As councils across the UK ruthlessly scrap their arts budgets – such as Newcastle City Council halving their already pitiful culture grants –  it’s the job of the ACE to represent not just London but all of England (as – spoiler alert! – their title would suggest). Far from meeting the challenge of helping failing regional arts companies, predictably and depressingly, they have continued to adopt their policy of cutting London budgets by a snail pace of 2 per cent and in doing so they maintain the London-centric status quo. The ACE’s budget accounts for just 0.5 per cent of government spending and while this should be higher, crucially, it should be distributed fairly. The current idea that art can be justified only if it provides revenue is toxic, but even more so if it that cannot be accessed by 86 per cent of the population who do not live within reach of an Oyster card. The bold scope of London’s cultural projects cannot be denied, yet their work does not have to come at the expense of projects outside the capital.

On the surface, the council’s decision to decrease London-based funding by £6.6m while increasing that to the rest of the UK by £9.5m surface appears to be a heroic,  Robin Hood-esque action of taking from the rich to give to the poor. Unfortunately, while cuts have been made from cultural fat cats like the English National Opera, the Southbank Centre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, increases in funding to the Manchester International Festival, the Northern Ballet, and Mima (Middlesbrough’s Modern Art Gallery) are still anomalies. It goes without saying that Whitehall is biased towards London, but coupled with the similar inclinations of the National Lottery and individual philanthropists – 90 per cent of their donations go straight into London-based projects – the picture gets even bleaker. The ACE drastically needs to reform their funding so that they can help struggling companies instead of the already successful.

Despite the headlines about their supposed “shake up” of arts funding, little change has been made. At a time when local authorities and the central government are both reluctant to provide grants for the sake of cultural prosperity, the ACE should be distributing their portfolio as evenly and fairly as possible. As it stands, it feels like we’re being presented with an ultimatum: move to London or you’re on your own.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.