On Wednesday there was a debate that took place in the Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster area of Parliament. The debate was entitled “Arts Council England: Funding” and the person who started it was Bob Neil who is the Chair of the Justice Committee and he is also the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst. He began with the “I beg to move, That this House has considered the funding decisions of Arts Council England.” and he also stated at the beginning
As time has gone on, those of us who follow this issue have had more and more grounds for concern, not just about individual funding decisions by the Arts Council but about the process by which it makes them. That process lacks transparency and, I believe, accountability, and there is a lack of engagement with the sector at a time when funding reductions are being made. Those may be necessary in the overall economic climate, but they have been made in a distributional way that has taken no account of economic, social or other impacts—or, above all, of the overall responsibility of the Arts Council.
A number of other MPs participated and one of them was Peter Bottomley who spoke several times. The whole of the debate can be obtained from here. These are some of the words from Peter Bottomley. His first comment was
Whether one’s experience is in the performing arts or the visual arts, everybody knows that it takes three to four years to put on a good opera of international standard or to put on an exhibition of paintings of international standard, with the co-operation of everybody involved. It seems peculiar that Ministers did not say to Arts Council England, “We understand that and, if you need to make changes, you need to make them over a six-year period, not a six-month period.”
Later on he stated
In addition to the performances, does my hon. Friend agree that it is a betrayal of all those who helped Vernon and Hazel Ellis restore the Coliseum from 2000 to 2004, having bought the freehold and made it into the largest and best theatre in London again? What did Arts Council England think would happen to that building, which has been funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the National Lottery, English Heritage and the like?
He then stated a bit later
That is because I am going to go back in time and it might bore other people, Mr Bone. The first chairman of the Arts Council I met was Sir Ernest Pooley, who succeeded John Maynard Keynes two years after I was born. Given that Arts Council England is for the encouragement of music and the arts, Pooley and Keynes would have been delighted at the competence with which it took our cultural institutions through the pandemic. The three rounds of emergency funding were executed in a way that nobody criticised. It was quite remarkable, and very effective.
The most recent Arts Council England report available on its website is from 2020-21. The chairman, Sir Nicholas Serota, talks about the three outcomes and the four investment principles, none of which give any indication that the council might have conceived cutting off the ENO and the Coliseum at the knees. Tributes to those who have cared for, led and participated in the ENO and the Coliseum should be put on record. I will say again that Hazel and Vernon Ellis, together with the major public funders and private individuals and trusts, deserve to be recognised. One of those funders was the National Lottery through Arts Council England. I do not know whether those taking the decision that was announced recently were aware of the Arts Council England funding for the Coliseum and its restoration, so that Sir Oswald Stoll’s Frank Matcham theatre could be restored on the anniversary of its first opening.
I think mistakes were made. I do not how much of it was to do with the Government, how much of it was to do with Arts Council England, and how much of it was to do with time pressures. The fact is that what was done clearly would not work and was not right, and it seems to me that the principle, both for Arts Council England and for the Government, is to say, “Is it necessary, is it right and will it work?” I will leave it to the Minister to explain not what has gone wrong but how he will put things right. I suggest that, afterwards, he writes to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, saying that the Worthing Borough Council bid for the connected cultural mile from the railway station to the lido, going past the museum, should be approved.
And his final statement was focused on the involvement by Barbara Keeley
If I have a spare place, I could invite the Minister to come to “Carmen” with me in a week-and-a-half’s time at the ENO. Most people there will not be Londoners; people come to London for the show, so I think that those figures are not quite right.
I say to the Arts Council and the ENO, through the Minister, that if they had sat down together they could have worked out a better future. There are six weeks now for the Minister to encourage them to do that. If they do not succeed, he should come back here and there will be a much rougher debate.