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Arts budget: Devil is in the detail

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Will Gompertz | 09:58 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was asked on Tuesday as he sat before the culture, media and sport select committee if he was an "eager assassin".

Jeremy Hunt

The minister smiled and said he was not. The catalyst for the question, posed by the Labour MP Paul Farrelly, suggested that there had been an unseemly alacrity with which the newly installed minister set about his task of delivering to the Treasury their bounty: a cut in his department's budget of 25%.

Jeremy Hunt's starting point was to look first to his own department's overheads with the intention of "protecting frontline services." He immediately introduced a scrappage scheme for DCMS ministerial cars and shortly afterwards announced a target of 50% departmental savings to be achieved over a four-year period.

He was asked about the consequences of his decision. What, for instance, was the range of money set aside for redundancies? Neither he nor his permanent secretary knew. It was an awkward moment.

Jeremy Hunt is a successful businessman with a first class honours degree from Oxford. Such achievements require not just intelligence but also the ability to pay attention to the details. For it is in the minutiae that the devil resides, hoping not to be spotted before wreaking havoc.

The eagerness with which the new ministerial team at the DCMS has gone about their cost-cutting business has taken many by surprise, especially as it started while their platitudinous words of love and protection towards the arts still hung in the air from pre-election hustings.

Ed Vaizey said shortly before the election that his position would be to advocate to his colleagues not to cut the arts because in the great scheme of things the budget was tiny and it wouldn't be worth the hassle.

The tiny argument clearly failed to convince and cuts came and more will shortly follow. But the concept of tiny is still important. There is some concern that decisions already taken, such as abolishing the UK Film Council, and others being discussed at the moment are being made without the necessary due diligence.

The Chaos Theory holds true for the arts. A small regional theatre forced to close due to cuts in Arts Council and regional government funding not only impacts on the local community but eventually on the National Theatre, which then impacts on the whole sector, tourism, the creative industries and so on.

There is wastage in the arts. Systems could be improved. It is not unreasonable to seek to effect change on behalf of the public who is funding the activity. But to come to the right conclusions and to make the right decisions requires the skill of a key-hole surgeon.

Precise measures brought about by deep understanding of actions and consequences could take the arts in Britain to the next level. But a ham-fisted, ill-considered botched job could leave them crippled.

These are big decisions that need to be predicated on small details. And that, I suspect, takes time.


  • Comment number 1.

    There are a number of conflicts of interest in the DCMS. The, for example oversee the Listing of Buildings - including the ones that they indirectly own and would like to flog off. This is not right but this is the reality. The only way forward through these conflicts to to go for judicial review which is very expensive and in consequence avoided by individuals and groups that are seeking to protect our major and internationally precious built environment. The DCMS will reduce our cultural heritage to a wasteland.

    But the DCMS is only concerned with cuts so anything that stops them flogging off our Nation's assets is finessed! But this is minor in the gigantic damage being done to the Nation by the Cameron Government in the name of saving money.

  • Comment number 2.

    I thought I would point out what DCMS stands for as it is not shown in the article.

    Department for Culture Media and Sport

  • Comment number 3.

    I was astonished by Will Gompertz's apparent ignorance of the film investment landscape outside London, as shown in his report about life after the UKFC on BBC TV News At Ten last night. He described various options available and said that one of them was to channel film funding through Film London - but according to Gompertz (in words to this effect) "Film London has no regional representation".

    Is this really what Gompertz thinks? And he is the BBC's arts editor..?!

    Film London is simply one of a country-wide network of regional screen agencies, and happens (logically) to be the one which covers London. As anyone who is clued up about British film will know, other agencies cover the rest of the country and one of these - EMMedia - has been spectacularly successful in investing in film production in the East Midlands over the last 8 years or so, in Nottingham in particular. Not only has EMMedia supported all of Shane Meadows' films (including the current Channel 4 success This Is England '86), but it has also backed commercial hits like Easy Virtue, arthouse fare like Better Things and crossover films like Control.

    It is perfectly possible for EMMedia and other regional agencies to continue to invest public sector funds in film production, alongside larger scale public and private funding for more mainstream films as now. The idea that it can only happen through the UKFC - or another London-based clone of it - is nonsense.

    I respectfully suggest that Will Gompertz does some rapid self-education on the subject before he attempts to explain it to us again.

  • Comment number 4.

    3. At 09:33am on 16 Sep 2010, ACooper14 wrote:
    I was astonished by Will Gompertz's apparent ignorance of the film investment landscape outside London.......

    I respectfully suggest that Will Gompertz does some rapid self-education on the subject before he attempts to explain it to us again.

    Ship arts coverage to Salford!

  • Comment number 5.

    Perhaps we should have a ‘lay’ member of the public on the BBC editorial team – a taxpayer with no other axe to grind who may argue that precision should give way to speed so that the deficit is brought down as rapidly as possible.

    They may also argue that a ‘tiny’ cut is better than no cut at all but I suspect that this tiny argument would be lost on the BBC.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think what Mr Gompertz says about the lack of recognition of the impact of cuts is quite right. I attended a discussion on Wednesday when Nita Clarke of the IPA pointed out that 'the law of unintended consequences' is about to 'kick in big-time'. She was talking about local government cuts but her comment holds true across many sectors. Of particular concern is the likely rise in unemployment.

    Mr Hunt and Mr Vaizey are both cultured people but they know less than they think they do about how the business and practice of culture work - both the publicly funded and the non-oublicly funded.


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