In a Westminster Hall debate yesterday, I spoke about the importance of funding for arts in the regions.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Like other hon. Members, I do not want this debate to become a tit for tat between London and the regions. All of us who represent the English regions acknowledge the vital importance of London as a cultural hub and powerhouse for arts and culture. Other hon. Members have already described London institutions touring and going out to the regions, but many of our constituents in Cornwall and Devon enjoy the odd trip, if they are fortunate enough, to London to visit our wonderful museums and theatres.
The recent “Rebalancing our Cultural Capital” report revealed an imbalance in funding, and I am pleased that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am a member, agreed to my request to hold an enquiry into this issue. We hope to do so and to report in the next few weeks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) has made absolutely clear, it is not only Arts Council and lottery funding that are a problem. The imbalances combine with the much bigger challenge, which he pointed to, of raising private and philanthropic support in the English regions. Compared with London, where huge financial services companies and others are based—they get the kudos from supporting the Royal Opera House, for example—we in the regions do not get the same capital and funding support from the private sector, however hard we try. When we put that together with local authorities’ withdrawal of support for arts and culture, we have a really serious imbalance.
I am sure hon. Members are aware that unitary and upper-tier authorities are in the process of deciding their spending priorities for the next three years, following the announcement of their funding in the next comprehensive spending review period. Some are already issuing dire warnings about having to retrench and fund only services for which they are statutorily responsible. As we all know, that would mean great peril for the arts and culture in many parts of our country. I am sure we all acknowledge the difficult economic climate the Government face, having had to extend their austerity programme, but I am sure the Minister and his Secretary of State are aware of the invaluable contribution to the nation’s well-being and to our economy that a flourishing arts and cultural sector makes. They will doubtless be making those points forcefully over the next months to the Treasury and to Government colleagues.
The symbiotic relationship between arts and culture, and social and economic well-being, is extremely visible in my own constituency of Exeter. One of the reasons why Exeter has become such a desirable place to live and work, and for businesses to relocate to, is the rich, attractive and varied culture we can offer. From our national award-winning museum to the sharp, edgy and award-winning Bike Shed Theatre, we have built up in recent years a cultural capital that attracts and keeps young talent and thrills and entertains residents and visitors. That is recognised by my forward-looking local authority, Exeter city council, which, despite suffering big cuts in funding from central Government, has managed to sustain its support for arts and culture in Exeter. That is in stark contrast to nearby Somerset, for example, which ended all support for the arts after the Government’s first round of cuts.
That leads me to the two requests I want to make to the Minister. The first is that he and his Secretary of State should use their offices over the next days and weeks to remind local authorities, as they face tough spending choices, of the value and importance of arts and culture. The leader of Devon county council, for example, has recently issued a warning about having to pare council spending down to mere statutory requirements. We do not want any more councils going the way of Somerset. We want more to learn from the example of Exeter. A further round of savage cuts in local government support will tip a lot of excellent and valued cultural organisations over the edge.
My second plea, through the Minister to the Arts Council, is that it use its funding clout to encourage local government to do the right thing. The Arts Council inevitably comes under huge pressure to step in, in areas where local government is withdrawing support, to ensure the survival of at least some cultural footprint. But I am afraid that—if that is what happens everywhere—all that would do is give the green light to philistine local authorities that want to withdraw support, giving them the impression that the Arts Council will simply step in and replace the funding. A far more sensible approach would be for the Arts Council to base funding decisions, where possible, on continuing support from local government. That would reward good councils such as Exeter and deter bad ones such as Somerset.
Finally, like the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), I welcome the commitment by Sir Peter Bazalgette, the new chairman of the Arts Council, to look again at the regional imbalance identified in the “Rebalancing our Cultural Capital” report. I look forward to his visiting Exeter later this month and to showing him—perhaps on his way to Cornwall—how the combination of a visionary local authority and a strong arts scene can create a virtuous circle from which our whole community benefits, even in these straitened times.