Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Christopher Gordon


  This note is written on the assumption that the Committee will already have considerable knowledge of the detailed arguments about what the Arts Council has been unilaterally proposing since the spring of 2001.

  1.  The House of Commons Estimates Committee in a report as long ago as 1967-68 declared that "The Arts Council should decentralise its support and work through regional associations, concentrating itself directly on national issues and organisations." (paragraph 90)

  The meticulously researched 1981-82 Session House of Commons Select Committee Report "Public and Private Funding of the Arts", which is still frequently cited internationally as a model went much further:

  "We believe that decisions about financial assistance should be taken as close to the locality of the recipients as possible. The movement from the centre was indeed one of the themes of the Estimates Committee Report in 1968, and too little has been done since then. It is no longer either practicable or really acceptable for the (sc. Arts) Council to retain direct responsibility for 1200 client organisations and individuals across the country. Therefore we recommend that the Arts Council should accelerate the handover of routine responsibility for its clients, other than the national companies, to the regional arts associations and local authorities. These new relationships should be established within the next five years." (Eighth Report Session 1981-82, paragraph 6.11)

  2.  This still did not happen. Although many of the Report's perspicacious recommendations did come into effect piecemeal over the next 20 years, the force of much of the analysis was lost with a fudged response from the Government Department concerned to the succeeding Parliament. Much of the impetus behind the incremental progress which did occur came from the immediate consequences of the abolition of the metropolitan county councils and the Greater London Council rather than from any strategic Arts Council commitment to decentralise.

  3.  Throughout its often distinguished history, the Arts Council has had, and continues to have, a serious problem in differentiating between strategic and operational responsibilities. Since the Council tends to view its own authority in terms of money, staffing and direct client relationships, all previous attempts at restructuring to eliminate duplication of functions at national and regional level have been undermined from within, as operational roles are reinvented by staff. In the light of a run of botched Arts Council "reforms" which have failed to grasp this particular nettle, I remain unconvinced on any evidence so far that things might be different this time round. There is simply no sufficient analysis of the costs, benefits and potential losses at local and regional level (in terms of service to artists and the public) to support the vague claims which have been being made for months, coupled with a stubborn refusal to consider or test any alternative proposals for improvements to the existing system.

  4.  A reading of the press comment and independent analysis of two rounds of consultation on the Arts Council's proposals demonstrates that taxpayers are bemused and artists and arts organisations predominantly hostile or indifferent to what has been proposed. In this context, it seems odd—to say the least—to be presented with a non-negotiable proposal from a centralised agency which appears to be at odds with virtually all other political and administrative trends. It should be remembered that the Arts Council's "pure" thinking, as evidenced in its initial unmodified proposal, was for a right of veto on any decisions made at regional level. Furthermore, the Arts Council's hostile takeover of the legally independent Regional Arts Boards would incorporate in a single agency those 10 organisations which it so very recently validated (for the DCMS and National Audit Office) as delegated Lottery distributors on an individual basis. If the Arts Council has serious doubts about the structures, why did it fail to confront any legitimate concerns at that particular time?

  5.  Within the broader context of the Government's decentralising policies, and in particular with other functions for which the DCMS is responsible apparently being considered for inclusion amongst the strategic powers of Regional Assemblies in the forthcoming white paper on regional government, the Arts Council's centralising intentions seem inappropriate. Whilst much of the rhetoric is regional, the practical realities will be rather different. With the Scottish Arts Council and the Arts Council of Wales now properly accountable through their devolved institutions of democratic government, and with an elected strategic authority restored to London, culture—and its dynamic relationship to society and the economy—is an important matter of concern in the debate about possible constitutional developments in the English regions. In national public arts policy in the UK over the years, demographic and developmental trends have invariably been subordinated to the demands of a particular metropolitan elite. Any move which pre-empts proper consideration of the evolving broader context would, in my view, be wilfully damaging and irresponsible.

  6.  There is also an important "non barking dog" in relation to British assumptions about the arm's length principle as it has traditionally been applied to cultural policy. Tony Banks MP was openly honest about this in discussion with the Committee in April 1999 (and he was replaced as Sports Minister shortly thereafter). David Mellor, when Secretary of State for National Heritage, also went on record as a sceptic, stating that he felt Ministers should have a far greater say in how the money they obtained through the Treasury should be deployed. Chris Smith during his time as Secretary of State, and for the very first time, steered through an overall policy framework for a UK Culture/Arts Ministry. With political devolution in the UK, and possible further regional developments in England, there is going to have to be much more clarity about responsibility for policy, and public accountability for it. I would personally argue that there is still a strong justification for the "arm's length", but within the wider cultural context of public (especially local authority) and private sector partnerships, it is increasingly difficult to define any meaningful boundaries.

  The Committee is no doubt very mindful of the shifting context within which the current Arts Council proposals are being promoted. Given the likely impact of those changes at local, regional, national and European levels, and how they may affect arts practice, support and participation within England, I cannot believe that the time is appropriate for proceeding with such a unilateral—and very inadequately supported—set of proposals.

9 January 2002

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 26 March 2002