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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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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.