A Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee inquiry into the Work of Arts Council England (ACE) has concluded there is a clear arts funding imbalance in favour of London. This, says the report, is at the ‘expense of tax payers and lottery players in other parts of the country’, a situation which ‘must be urgently rectified’.

The Select Committee’s final report resulted from three evidence gathering meetings over a six-month period. These looked at the scope, scale and remit of ACE, as well as the geographical distribution of its funding. The committee heard evidence from current and former ACE chairs Sir Peter Bazalgette and Dame Liz Forgan, and ACE chief executive Alan Davey. Evidence was also provided by Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell, authors of the controversial report, Rebalancing our Cultural Capital, which originally sparked the select committee inquiry.

Accepting that to some extent the funding imbalance can be explained by ‘London’s status as a capital city and world centre of culture’, along with cuts in grant in aid of a third since 2010 which has led to ‘difficult decisions about where to target support’, the report calls for ACE to be ‘more proactive when it comes to encouraging high quality applications from around the country and establishing the underlying reasons for any current imbalance’ and that ‘more needs to be done to improve the transparency of its decision-making’.

The report also states that ACE must act ‘with greater urgency [to restore some balance] if it is to realise its declared ambition to engineer the provision of great art and culture for everyone.’

Redressing the balance

Referring to the arts funding divide, John Whittingdale MP, chair of the Committee, said: “There is a clear imbalance in arts funding in favour of London – which the Arts Council itself admits. This is unfair on tax payers and lottery players in other parts of the country, as well as limiting access to cultural opportunities and enjoyment across the country.

“We heard evidence of well thought out proposals to help redress the balance, starting for example with lottery funding. We welcome the efforts already being made by the ACE to shift lottery funding outside of London but would like to see this done faster.”

The Select Committee was however keen to praise the hard work and dedication of ACE’s staff – particularly in the light of staffing cuts since 2010 – and stated it would be ‘disappointed if ACE saw any further fall in its grant in aid, despite the need to recognise prevailing economic conditions’.

Among the several proposals put forward by the report, a number deal specifically with the issue of the funding imbalance. These include: limiting London’s access to National Lottery funding for the arts to its proper per capita share (equal to that of the rest of England) – this idea was originally proposed in Rebalancing our Cultural Capital; earmarking any future increase in ACE’s grant in aid for the English regions beyond the M25 area; a redoubling of efforts at brokering cultural partnerships involving businesses, local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, universities and international organisations, particularly within the EU, which might provide additional funding sources.

The report also suggests that more needs to be done to encourage those local authorities that do little to support the arts to be more proactive, with Whittingdale adding: “We are disappointed that a few local authorities appear to fail to recognise the value of supporting the arts and we see little point in pumping public money into areas that do not particularly want or need it.

“We would expect that the government minister with responsibility for the arts should use his position to champion the arts at every opportunity, not least in conversations with local authorities.”

ACE responds

In his response to the report, ACE chair Sir Peter Bazalgette said: “We share the committee’s desire for a speedy response to the historic challenges to rebalancing. It is difficult to act urgently when our income is shrinking and additional resource would certainly allow for greater flexibility in supporting our ambition to achieve this.

“To that end, we fully endorse the importance placed on local partnership working and will continue to use our on the ground expertise and knowledge to build connections and broker partnerships around the country that deliver strong cultural engagement.

“We also welcome the recommendation that the Arts Council’s Grant in aid should not be reduced. Further, the report says that as we have played a part in helping to reduce the deficit, we should be considered a beneficiary in a time of recovery. We welcome this and agree that any further provision in future spending rounds should be prioritised to bolster the national arts ecology outside the M25.”

The authors of the Rebalancing our Cultural Capital report have also responded to the recommendations. They said: “Our experience of interaction with ACE over the past 12 months, during which time it has failed to address the issues we have raised, leaves us with severe doubts as to whether it is structurally capable of addressing the recommendations for redistribution that the Select Committee has made at either the scale, or with the urgency, envisaged.”

Read the full Work of Arts Council England report in pdf format: www.publications.parliament.uk

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