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




  "If Regional Arts Associations did not exist in all parts of England and Wales we would have to invent them. Such invention would be difficult, and impossible for any central body such as the Arts Council of Great Britain or the Welsh Arts Council to achieve. Certainly neither Parliament nor Whitehall could create bodies such as the present RAAs: only people in the regions could do that. And fortunately these people have already created them."

  So wrote Lord Redcliffe Maud in 1976 in his report on Support for the Arts in England and Wales. The first Regional Arts Association was formed in the south west of England in 1956, as a direct reaction to the decision of the Arts Council in that year to close its own regional offices. By 1973 the regional arts associations covered the whole country, and in 1991 they were transformed into Regional Arts Boards (RABs), with greater responsibilities devolved from the Arts Council and a firmer place in the national structure of support for the arts.

  In March 2001 Gerry Robinson, Chair of the Arts Council of England, announced his intention to abolish the RABs and merge their assets with the Arts Council to constitute that body as the sole organisation for the funding of the arts across the country. He gave the RABs six weeks in which to abandon their status as independent charities and registered companies and to surrender their assets, liabilities and staff to the Arts Council. The proposal was "non-negotiable": a "single organisation" was the only option on offer.

  No RAB acceded to that request. The RABs have been unanimous that change is needed, but that more than one way of achieving it should be considered before decisions were reached. Several Boards rejected the proposal outright: others expressed their concern at aspects of it. In effect, nothing happened for four months, apart from acrimonious dispute and the diversion of much energy that should have gone to the support of the arts to questions of structure and the politics of change.

  The national structure for the funding of the arts has been developing ever since Maynard Keynes first took the chair in 1945. It must continue to develop and adapt. Everyone is now agreed on what needs to be addressed: duplication and any unnecessary administrative overhead must be avoided; priorities within the field of the arts must be determined; links with national policies in social fields must be established, and so on. The wish lists of the Arts Council and the RABs are very similar, but the ways of achieving them are fundamentally different.

  A period of public consultation was launched by the publication of the Arts Council's revised proposals on July 18. Two days before, however, the Secretary of State issued a statement which foreclosed the main issue:

  "The Arts Council's plans provide an excellent blueprint for a new single organisation with much greater levels of local involvement. The regions will be at the centre of the new proposals with a clear intention that decision-making should be as devolved as possible. The new organisation must work differently, must work well and must attract and retain the best people. I see this as a key piece of public sector reform."

  The capacity for self-delusion is breathtaking. What the Secretary of State apparently desires is the opposite of what is about to happen.

  Like Gerry Robinson himself the proposal is superficially attractive: reduce "bureaucracy", simplify the system, and in consequence make more money available for the arts themselves. Even the turkeys of the RABs might vote for Christmas on those terms. What it really means is altogether different.

  First of all there will be a costly and time-consuming process of institutional change which will benefit no-one and serve only to distract those concerned from their service to the arts. Two years is estimated, at a cost of £8 million. It is likely to be at least three years, at considerably greater cost. The merger of the Arts Council and the Crafts Council, a relatively simple operation launched three years ago, is still not complete.

  Notional savings have been variously proffered by the Arts Council at £8 million, £10 million and even £12 million for 2003 and beyond. These figures are unsubstantiated targets: where and how they will be made is not clear, and whether they will ever come on stream (and at what cost to the support services for the arts) is uncertain. At the end of that there will be a single national organisation for arts funding, run from London, with delegation of executive tasks to regional offices whose staff will have to dance to the national tune rather than the genuine devolution of responsibility to the competence, skills and contacts of the regional boards.

  Largely as a result of the contributions of the RABs over the past four months the Arts Council's revised proposals are indeed very different in presentation from those with which the RAB Chairs were faced in March. But they are not different in substance: indeed the concessions now offered only serve to reveal how flawed was the original proposal. Chairman Robinson's single national organisation remains the only dish on offer—take it or, well, take it, as though it was not considered in most circles only prudent good practice to consider different possibilities when faced with the need for change.

  Moreover the crude manner of the original announcement, and the behaviour of the Arts Council since, have destroyed trust between the different players in the system; they have introduced chaos and uncertainty, and undermined the authority of the RABs as they continue to fulfil their role to the best of their ability. Unfortunately they have also illustrated the ruthlessly dominating way in which a single organisation will in practice work.

  One of the most significant changes is the promise that nine of the 15 members of the Arts Council will be asked to chair the new regional committees, and even that the regional committees will be allowed to express a view about who their chair, to be appointed by the Secretary of State, will be. You can read that either way: nine out of 15 is a majority with a regional base, but since the regional chairs are to be appointed from the Arts Council to the regional committees it is hardly the same as having independent chairs of free-standing regional boards in the majority on the national body. The key lies in the legal structure. A federal body would be constituted of independent parts: what is proposed is a single, centralised body with regional branches. The give-away comes in the document itself: ". . .all decisions and actions, wherever they may be taken within the new organisation, will be actions and decisions of the organisation as a whole. . .". In other words, a centralised, metropolitan, bureaucratic monolith.

  In another passage the notion of subsidiarity is invoked, as is fashionable for any superior organisation seeking to impose its will on subordinates. The true concept of subsidiarity requires that the lower levels of decision-making determine what should be treated at the higher level. The Arts Council, like the European Commission and the Roman Catholic church, reverses the principle so that it will be the higher level that will determine what the lower levels will do—and withdraw their privileges should disagreement arise.

  At the time of the original announcement Gerry Robinson was scornful of the contribution of the local authorities: "a mere 3 per cent of the costs of the RABs". He appeared ignorant of the fact that while the subscriptions of the local authorities to their regional boards are indeed modest (but hook those authorities firmly into the national funding structure), local authorities contribute in total across the country as much financial support as central government: half the public funding of the arts comes from local authorities. They were deeply offended by the manner and the implication of Robinson's announcement; some are questioning whether they should remain in the system at all. No national system of arts funding will succeed if the local authorities do not have a clear role in it. That is what the present structure does provide, and the new structure can only purport to provide in the form of regional committees (now upgraded in name only to "regional arts councils") which will in fact have no independent power.

  Robinson's scorn extended to the RABs themselves and their staff: "ridiculous layers of bureaucracy" was one of his terms. I do not myself recognise the term "bureaucrat" as an insult. Bureaucracy is but a means of ordering our affairs with equity. There is good bureaucracy and bad bureaucracy; there are good bureaucrats and ineffective or even destructive bureaucrats. There are, both in the Arts Council and the RABs, administrative tasks that have to be fulfilled. But the majority of the staff of the RABs are not "bureaucrats" in the derogatory sense at all: they are experts in their field, promoters of the arts, supporters and champions of artists and arts organisations, creators of effective partnerships to serve artistic development and multipliers of funding.

  It is clear that Robinson has had a Bad Experience, probably in the form of the recent Theatres Review, but it was the Arts Council that made a mess of that process, not the regional boards, which can claim their share of credit for the ultimate success of that operation to distribute the funds that Gerry Robinson had so astutely raised—he is a real champion of the arts, when he is not messing around with structures.

  In fact the roles of the Arts Council and of the Regional Arts Boards are different and complementary. The Arts Council has a strategic role at national and international levels and a responsibility to support and monitor the work of the RABs; they in their turn provide the thrust and energy for artistic development at the regional level. Robinson clearly cannot understand the complexities and varieties of public sector funding, above all in this most intimate and powerful field. As a result he has made a monumental and costly mistake, first by predetermining a solution to a problem insufficiently analysed, and then by the manner in which he has sought to impose it. Tessa Jowell has now followed him.

  If we are in fact to rid the system of duplication and "bureaucracy" we need to start with the Arts Council itself. While the RABs in general have become ever more effective the Arts Council has failed to put its own house in order. Gerry Robinson has failed to achieve his own targets for the reform of the Council, the clarification of its role and the reduction of its staff. On his appointment he promised to reduce the staff to150. It remains at around 200, together with numerous expensive consultants. Robinson now claims that he will reduce the number further, to 70 professionals and an undisclosed number of people engaged in "corporate services". What they will be for and how many there will be is not clear.

  My own recent experience of the Arts Council, first as chair of a lottery capital project and then in respect of a major national organisation in Yorkshire, has been of an organisation catastrophically inefficient and virtually impossible to deal with. There are those, including some on my own Board, who question the need for the Arts Council at all, and who would happily receive funds direct from the Secretary of State and her Department. I would rather see a slimmed down Arts Council playing its proper, and limited, strategic role, and relating constructively with the arts world largely through the RABs, who would themselves have an increasing role in regional policies as the Government's policies for regional development are implemented.

  It is particularly sad that a new Secretary of State should have given such unequivocal support to so contrary and destructive a proposal. It is very New Labour: the smack of firm government, the dismissal of provincials and local authorities as conservative and resistant to change, the backing of a businessman and a business solution even where he and his nostrums are entirely inappropriate and bitterly opposed. The last thing she wants is to lose Mr Robinson; and the first thing she wants is the Prime Minister's approval. The motivation is all too clear.

  But when all this is over, someone will reinvent the regional arts organisations, just as they have at every crucial point in the last six decades. I, and a good many other players, will have left the scene long before then, in protest both at what is proposed and at the way it has been handled.

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Prepared 26 March 2002