I guess it really is a little early in the year to be talking about pantomime characters. But arts and cultural services are understandably the Cinderella area of local government activity.
It is perhaps a temptation on the part of most parliamentary speakers at LGA conferences to focus exclusively on national issues. However, my own political background ? still relatively rare on the Conservative benches ? has been in local government. It was during an eight year stint on a central London unitary authority that I first came across cultural services and realised their impact on an urban community, where affluence and poverty existed cheek-by-jowl.
It was many years, well before I was elected to parliament and became a Shadow Minister in our ODPM team, that I first came across the Environmental Protective and Cultural Services (EPCS) Formula spending share. Those of us from central London know how fractious have been the debates on the maintenance of the EPCS basket over recent years. The under-funding in this area means that the cultural block, for libraries and museums, for example, still remains vulnerable. Inevitably at a time when passported grant expenditure from central government has become ever more popular (at least from the Treasury’s standpoint) it is arts and cultural services which find themselves as hot favourites in the hit list for cuts. Indeed the trend towards mandatory spending commitments across the land in our Town Halls has been nothing short of disastrous for those diminishing spheres of expenditure that are discretionary. Make no mistake, local government will remain at the heart of policy development as well as service provision in this area.
As everyone here is acutely aware, the role of cultural services provided by local authorities is under scrutiny. Culture is a factor that has to be included in every element of the typical council’s work and it has a big impact on a CPA assessment.
I know, for example, in my own local authority, the City of Westminster, that despite our community’s proximity to breathtaking collections like the National Gallery or great companies like the English National Opera or Ballet, these organisations may as well be on Mars for all the relevance they have to people’s lives in some of our social housing estates.
But it is our local authority that is negotiating with the National Gallery, for example, to arrange outreach work with our youth clubs, older people and care leavers. Similarly it is the local council which grant-aids voluntary sector and cultural organisations to work with our homeless community and on a range of ethnically-orientated programmes. Truly culture provides the glue that binds the most diverse cultures and communities together. Yet too often the value and impact of cultural activities is not fully appreciated.
The Conservatives recognise that quality of life issues have rapidly worked their way up the daily priority of millions of people, especially those living in our cities and the ever increasing suburban sprawl. So it goes without saying that we ? like the Labour and Liberal Democrats, to be sure ? recognise a role for both central and local government in supporting the arts, our museums, libraries and galleries through public funding.
Heritage and culture provide a powerful source of social capital, which lies at the essence of any community. In this way we can promote an indispensable source of local identity and pride. However, in an increasingly materialistic society and amidst a political culture where financial considerations often dwarf all others, it is ever more important that policy makers recognise and appreciate the intrinsic merit of culture and the arts.
The danger of valuing culture solely on the ground of its incidental benefits is plain to see. Yes, vibrant arts and culture in a locality can lead to crime reduction. Yes, it can result in enhancements in health, and education, amongst young and old alike. But once our cultural services are justified primarily or exclusively in these terms, we are on a slippery slope towards rigorous, Treasury-imposed cost-benefit analysis.
With the greatest respect I fear that over the past few years we have been descending down such a slope with too much micromanagement. This, of course, is by no means exclusively a problem in the culture, arts and heritage sphere. Ask any doctor, teacher, soldier or local-government officer!
Once again if culture and the arts gets treated like any other government department, we would argue that its very essence is diminished. Even in my short tenure as Shadow Culture Minister, I have met hundreds of people working in this field whose enthusiasm and larger-than-life approach cannot fail to inspire. What they tell me is most down-heartening about working in the arts today is the explosion in bureaucracy and form-filling that overshadows their working life. None of this comes cheap ? the running costs of the DCMS have doubled since 1997 and the Art Council and the various lottery quangos gobble up over £1m a week in operating costs.
Small theatre groups and community-based arts projects expend more time and energy in applying for Art Council grants than can possibly be justified by their receipt. Meantime the entire process is hampered by the realisation that artistic judgement and the desire to take risks and innovate has to play second fiddle to "playing the game", by seeking to justify an application on set criteria such as improving access and social exclusion.
This must end. Conservatives accept the significant benefits to our fellow Britons of a vibrant, innovative culture community. In this way there are often huge, intangible contributions made towards regeneration and community spirit. But once again, we should not shy away from supporting art for art’s sake.
Under a Conservative government cultural organisation would be given far more day-to-day freedom to get on with the job as they see it. Let the enthusiasm and passion that lies at the essence of so many of those working in arts and culture hold sway. Only in this way can we start along the road allowing everyone to have the opportunity to enjoy a rich cultural life.
There are two specific areas of local government concern in the EPCS basket that I wish to touch on. For my sins I served on the Standing Committee of the Licensing Act 2003. I believe I made over forty speeches on that Bill ? and we won not a single vote in Committee!
So much for my powers of persuasion! Much of our concern was procedural ? too much power and influence has been taken out of the hands of local residents for my liking, a particular problem for those of us representing a city centre constituency. The costs issue remains live as does the unravelling of carefully constructed undertakings, all part of the give and take in the licensing arena. It was small, family-run businesses and restaurants which were often the most vocal objectors to the new regime. The visions of nightly alcohol-induced rioting in our streets may have been overblown, although surely the additional policing, in the run-up to Christmas following implementation of the Act, will not be repeated this summer. Only then will the true effects of the liberalisation of drinking hours be evident and without doubt at some considerable cost to the local taxpayer.
So in licensing I recognise the work and sterling progress that local councils up and down the country have made with this flawed legislation. We need fees set at a realistic level and changes both to the legislation and the guidance if local interests are to be properly protected.
On libraries all my investigations have led me to believe that to characterise the difficulties that beset this sector as a matter of money, grants and finances alone is bogus.
It is all very well for government ministers to grandstand to the press about using obscure powers to keep libraries open, whenever local Tory or Lib Dem Councils propose their closure. I accept that there are some financial considerations in play, but the real issue for our libraries is about direction ? moving forward with a clear vision about providing current, quality books and IT services for the benefit of all local residents. Make our libraries an important part of the community experience rather than focusing energies on social inclusion alone. In many of our towns it is surely not beyond the wit of man for library’s opening hours to reflect those of neighbouring shops and take account of modern working day patterns. Let those libraries which can cater for internet banking and community cafés do so.
However, time and again my research has shown that too much attention has been paid to the notional boosting of internet usage in our libraries on the grounds that the most vulnerable in our society should benefit. If books in our libraries are not up to scratch (and all too often they are not) then the public lending library experience will wither on the vine.
Let me turn to the world or museums and galleries. Most of my parliamentary colleagues harbour under the illusion that my role involves one champagne reception after another skirting around the trendiest art galleries in the West End. Well, there is a certain amount of glamour involved, but what strikes me is the amount of sheer hard-work, thought and entrepreneurial inspiration by those employed in the galleries and museums ? all of which goes into making so many of our institutions an enduring success.
The ethos of our oldest museums foundations has been exported around the world.
Outward-looking, community-focused and recognising in that context that the "community" concerned may in fact incorporate the entire world. Take the British Museum, for example. It was founded in 1753 at a time of great domestic political turmoil with the avowed intent of being a window on global culture, rather than a celebration of British imperialism. Financial autonomy lies at the heart of what the British Museum has become and it is a philosophy that can be applied to modern-day museums.
Conservatives will support museum trusts as a way of reducing staffing and financial pressures on local authorities, whilst giving greater autonomy to our museums. We believe that the trust model helps to reinvigorate community interest and makes it easier to attract commercial and individual donations and bequests. We believe that cultural organisations need independence from state control ? most especially financial control. It promotes efficiency and dynamism to insist that our museums acquire funds from multiple sources ? fund-raising in the community, income generation and commercial partnerships.
I also strongly support the concept of museums as a vehicle for international understanding in a world of bewildering cultural change. It is unrealistic to put it mildly, for the next generation of British schoolchildren to start learning Mandarin or Cantonese as China becomes a world economic superpower. But it is essential that we appreciate Chinese culture and history and here museums stand to play an essential role. Ditto for the Middle East, where even a rudimentary understanding of Persian history, art and culture amongst opinion formers in the US and Europe would go some significant way to informing the debate on that ancient civilisation’s relations with its neighbours. Let me stress ? not that as a Conservative it should be strictly necessary! ? this is not about museums promoting a programme of political correctness or indoctrinating our children as to a particular world view. We just need to open the minds of our fellow countrymen young and old.
The National Lottery Bill meanders its way through parliament. It was perhaps inevitable that in moving from the Opposition Treasury team at the end of last year I should be given, as a reward, the oversight of this legislation in the House of Commons.
I need hardly tell you how important this legacy of the last Conservative government has been in funding the many cultural regeneration programmes across the country, from the Eden Project in Cornwall to inner-city Clydeside work in Glasgow.
However, the National Lottery has increasingly become a by-word for political interference. If the current Bill gets through parliament almost half of the receipts from the Lottery will be distributed by the Big Lottery Fund, a new Labour government creation that offends two of the main underlying principles of the lottery.
First, this fund gives enormous powers of discretion to the Secretary of State, effectively allowing the government to place its hand into the Lottery pot. Secondly, it flies in the face of the principle of additionality, namely that Lottery money should not be used to pay for things that are the government’s day-to-day responsibility.
When the Lottery was set up twelve years ago there was universal agreement across the political spectrum that at all costs the temptation should be resisted to use the funds to pay for items of general government expenditure. By 1998, however, 13% of all good cause money had been earmarked for the New Opportunities Fund for Health, Education and the Environment. This rose to a third once the special Millennium Commission project fund had been wound up.
We calculate that since 1998 some £3.2 billion in Lottery funding has been diverted from the four original good causes (arts, heritage, sports and charity) towards regular government expenditure. There is no disputing that we require MRI scanners, defibrillators and the like but these should not be funded by players of the National Lottery but out of general taxation.
Whilst I cannot sensibly be in a position at this stage of the electoral cycle to make any hard and fast commitments, I am hopeful that we would be able to match our 2005 General Election commitment to use Lottery money only to pay for projects under the four original good causes, thereby boosting local cultural regeneration programmes. The same of course applies to heritage expenditure. Rightly Heritage Lottery Funding applies only to capital expenditure, but there are countless listed buildings at risk owned by central or local government and we recognise the importance of promoting a maintenance review in local government over historic sites and buildings.
I wanted to conclude with a few more general observations. We regard culture and the arts as an integral part of our vision for a better quality of life for all our people. In an age of a more consumerist outlook, where there is demand for more choice and better quality in our public services, we recognise that the provision of arts and culture needs to move with the times. As communities become ever more disparate and fragmented there is an increased importance to be attached to the power of culture and the arts as a unifying force to bring people together.
We need to focus less on access and more on excellence of provision so that people have the opportunity and reason to engage in their cultural passions, whether in galleries, museums or at the theatre or in the village hall.
The role of government in our cultural life should be as an enabler, not a controller. Improving Britain’s cultural opportunities and with it attracting engaging new, excited audiences will only come by trusting those with the passion, enthusiasm and energy in our cultural sector to innovate and perform in their own way.
So I return again to the key input of our local authorities. A cultural strategy with leadership, partnership, learning and access at its heart is essential. Whilst the duty to provide may apply only to libraries, a local cultural strategy clearly gives focus to the creation of a sense of place, excitement and vibrancy in our communities. What more can all of us in the world of governance be expected to achieve?