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Westcountry misses out while London grabs cash for culture

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 01, 2013

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The capital gets many times the arts subsidy of the South West. Adrian Vinken of Plymouth’s Theatre Royal is angry.

How realistic is it to expect, in a country dominated by global markets often with very localised economic benefits, that we should all have access to a reasonable quality of life wherever we happen to live in England? We are told that the South East property market is 'overheating' again and that there is a strong north/south economic divide. Living in the far South West we all know that there is certainly an obvious east/west one! Is it reasonable to expect that central government can and should use its influence to try to level out this financial playing field or is it sheer folly for it to try to 'buck the market'? These and related questions are fundamental, the subject of perpetual debate and often serve to divide people pretty much along traditional party political lines.

There are, however, areas in which the influence of government policy on making society fairer is obvious and far less controversial. There are two areas where for generations as a nation, irrespective of party politics, we have fundamentally committed to managing as best we can a level playing field for all. The first is education and the second, as famously celebrated in Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony, is healthcare. Yes I know both are controversial and never out of the news but that's precisely because, as a nation, we see them as so important. Whenever a school is identified to be 'failing' it is immediately put under the spotlight and remedial plans put in place. Given human nature this will be a never ending process but it does signify our commitment to giving every child a good basic standard of education. The NHS, for all its trials and tribulations, is the best solution we have come up with so far to deliver our national commitment to free healthcare for all. The vast majority of people support these two basic principles and are prepared to see their taxes go to government so that it can provide that equality of educational and healthcare infrastructure throughout the country.

Yesterday, however, a report was published that demonstrates quite shockingly how government policy has supported a massive unfairness in how taxes are used to support cultural life in England. What percentage of government funds invested each year in our cultural institutions like theatres, museums, concert halls, galleries and heritage buildings and activities like orchestras, festivals and exhibitions do you think is spent in London and what percentage throughout the whole of the rest of England? We're talking total funds directly from the DCMS (the 'Culture Ministry'), from the Arts Council and from the Lottery. The replies I received ranged from 20% to, more commonly, 40-50% going to London. But the accurate answer, which features as one of the staggering headlines of today's 'Rebalancing our Cultural Capital' report, turns out to be an eye-watering 82%!

This means of every £5 spent on the cultural life of the whole nation, more than £4 of it is spent in London where some eight million people live with less than £1 remaining to be spread around the entire rest of the country from Newcastle to Penzance where nearly 50 million people live! Secondly, in crude terms, it means that for every person living in London each year some £70 is spent supporting cultural activity in that city whereas, for the remaining 50 million of us an average of only £4.58 is made available. We taxpayers around the rest of the country are cross-subsidising to a quite massive extent the richness and variety of London's cultural landscape.

As one of those marginalised 50 million people and perhaps a reluctant subsidiser of life in the South East how does that knowledge make you feel? How unfair is this current state of affairs? With education and healthcare, government has a primary role in ensuring that taxes are used to promote equality. Should we not expectthat it should also manage a more level playing field when it comes to the cultural opportunities available to citizens throughout the country?

In reality of course the position is not as black and white as it might at first seem. London boasts some of the planet's finest cultural institutions; the British Museum, National Theatre, V & A and National Gallery, that operate in a rarefied international marketplace. They are national assets vital to our global standing and competitiveness and we should celebrate and be proud of them. They are located there because for centuries that's where the nation's political and financial levers have been found. Logically they could have been distributed in other cities but they were not and they still require fundingas national assets to the benefit of Londoners and domestic and foreign visitors alike.

The presence of these big expensive national institutions certainly explains some of the funding imbalance between London and the rest of the country but by no means all of it. Our national policy makers, key philanthropists and commercial leaders – people with a determining influence on major cultural investment decisions – continue to live and socialise within an intensely London-centric world often only with the vaguest of notions of the realities of life outside of the M25 corridor. They instinctively, perhaps unconsciously, default to supporting projects and institutions that are close to home. London benefits disproportionately time and again to the detriment of the rest of the country. London also boasts an extremely large and rich wider cultural infrastructure. This wealth of activity, and the sheer amount of funding enjoyed by many national companies, is paid for at the expense of cultural investment in the rest of England. Effectively people living in the Westcountry and across England are denied access to cultural and creative opportunities so that people in London can enjoy an embarrassment of riches. This is simply unfair and we must look to government, over time, to redress this imbalance.

If you feel strongly about this matter then I would urge you to contact your local Member of Parliament so they may register your concern with Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture.

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