The cost of discounting culture


Joyce Quin on why the Coalition must fundamentally rethink its approach to the arts

One of the most important sectors of the UK economy is the creative industries, arts and culture. According to the Arts Council, our creative economy, as a proportion of GDP, is the largest in the world and our culture sector accounts for nearly 70,000 businesses – contributing £28bn to the UK economy. The creative industries provide 1.5 million jobs and our arts and culture attract millions of overseas tourists, helping to promote Britain as a world hub for creative talent.

If arts and culture are important to our economy nationally, they are also vitally important to our regions and localities and have, in recent years, played a crucial part in the economic successes of many towns and cities. Among the many examples that come to mind are Newcastle-Gateshead, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol and East London. Cultural projects and initiatives have also reversed the decline of some of traditional seaside resorts such as Margate and Folkestone.

Yet this important sector is being threatened both nationally and regionally by the Coalition government’s determination to force through severe economic cuts. The Arts Council’s budget, for example, has been cut by 30% since 2010 and further steep reductions are in the pipeline. As with the economy generally, such cuts are too deep and too fast, and threaten rather than help our efforts to secure economic growth.

In the regions the position is, if anything, worse because added to the effect of central government spending reductions are steep cuts being enforced on the budgets of councils, whose record of supporting the arts and helping to grow our creative sector is vital to the aforementioned local successes. The government has also abolished the Regional Development Agencies which I know from my own part of the country, the North-East, had significant success in promoting and expanding our cultural sector, through business and tourism support. Indeed, tourism in the region enjoyed a rate of growth in the period between 2003 and 2009 unmatched by any other economic sector.

In the North East, as elsewhere, there is great concern that this good work will be undermined by cuts. For example, the economic contribution of the Sage, Gateshead to the region equates to around £146 million since opening and in the current year supports around 665 jobs. It is important also to remember that many of our country’s great actors and theatre directors cut their teeth in the regions first. Their role in providing a nursery for national success and achievement must be fully recognised.

The Coalition recently produced its mid-term review, with an account of its actions since coming to office as well as commitments for the period between now and the next general election. Worryingly, the document carried little mention of the importance of the creative industries to our economy; and, astoundingly, there was no mention of culture or the arts in the commitments listed by the so-called Department for Culture, Media and Sport. This will certainly fuel fears that Ministers are simply failing to understand the central and integral role arts, culture and the creative industries need to play in our future strategy for economic growth and recovery.

In a debate I am opening in the House of Lords, tonight, my aim will be to both highlight the gravity of the current crisis in arts funding and to urge the government to rethink its whole approach to the arts and culture sector.  I believe that nothing less than a fundamental change of direction is now required.

Baroness Joyce Quin is a backbench Labour Peer, and was previously an MEP and MP for constituencies in the North East of England

Published 29th January 2013

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