Reports from the culture select committee tend to be marked by two characteristics, superficiality and complete misapprehension, but this latest one is different. Bafflingly titled “Countries of Culture” when it is about arts funding in the English regions, the report does this time seem to comprehend the problem. My issue with it is that it doesn’t go anything like far enough in recommending possible solutions.
Under its new chair, Damian Collins, the committee gleaned from its rather sparse line-up of witnesses that the arts have an undeniable intrinsic value but they have a definable and unique role in health, education and economic development. That vital cultural offer is failing because of local authority funding cuts – “there is a danger that, contrary to the government’s stated wish to make culture more accessible, it will become less so”, the report says and it wants a better defined policy on accessibility with “a higher priority in terms of funding”. Walsall is prepared to close its art gallery if the art gallery itself doesn't find alternative funding, and Birmingham, we learn today, is halving its grant to the world renowned Birmingham Rep.
The report recognises the importance of partnerships involving not only arts organisations and councils but also businesses and the education sector, as pointed up in Ed Vaizey’s white paper earlier this year, and with the tourism agencies.
It wants the Treasury and DCMS – no mention of the Department for Local Government and Communities, note, though that might have given the exercise a bit of context – to do an impact assessment on tax breaks, VAT regulation, Gift Aid and estate duty relief schemes to find ways of encouraging philanthropy and, who knows, business sponsorship. It wants nationally funded organisations to behave nationally by lending objects, productions and expertise to regional and local venues, which they increasingly do of course.
And it lays the responsibility on central government, but fails to lay down the law on solving the initial dilemma: local authorities can no longer afford to pay for the arts and there is no plan for replacing that funding. There is no suggestion of a unified policy of making councils use their initiative to consider partnerships with local universities, for instance, and local industry to ensure community arts provision which everyone is at long last agreed we need, but nobody can think of how to afford it. The report’s recommendations are too vague and no-one will take serious notice of a wish list. The government is not going to change its decision that there is to be no more money coming from that direction for regional arts, nor is it asked to here. And all this while the National Lottery flow that has been the making of the cultural capital in Britain for more than two decades, is fading fast.
But there is a way that works extremely well in Europe: a hotel culture tax. Britain and particularly England has a flourishing tourist market, particularly since the pound is so cheap, and a culture tax of 1%-5% on hotel bills such as operates in Italy with the proceeds hypothecated to a fund for local arts provision would be simple to run and enormously productive in terms of cash. We made a leap with the lottery a generation ago, and look what that has done for the arts and heritage. Here is a smaller step but one that might be at least as productive.