Now that Sue Gray’s report has been published and we can all just get over it and move on, I’m sure you will join me in shifting focus to the much-anticipated “levelling up” white paper. Early reports that the man responsible for it, Michael Gove, thinks it is “shit” are surely inaccurate. This is the first detailed explanation of the government’s flagship policy, it has a capable minister responsible for it and its aims are clearly important to voters across the country.
So far, with details scarce, defining “levelling up” has been more of an art than a science. But recent communications from culture secretary Nadine Dorries got me thinking about what the hard facts might mean for the arts.
On Sunday she tweeted an article announcing that “arts and culture in northern England are to get extra cash under the levelling-up plans to be announced this week [with] all additional funding for the Arts Council England agreed in the spending review will go to supporting creativity outside London”.
The article quotes Dorries stating that “artistic talent can be found in every corner of the nation” – an important point and absolutely true. Her tweet went on to state that, as a consequence, “arts funding should be spread evenly”.
The director of Conservative think tank Onward welcomed Dorries’s “excellent” announcement by saying there is “no justification for Londoners receiving five times the per capital (sic) average (…) than the rest of England”. Onward’s analysis shows London receiving almost half (47 per cent) of national culture spending.
That sounds a lot – and it is. The spend consists of several different funding streams. A handy map shows where Arts Council England’s national portfolio organisations are located. It’s just one such stream, but useful for showing some of the geography involved. Initially, when zoomed out, it seems as if investment is spread fairly evenly across the nation. But zoom in a little and it becomes clear just how many of these institutions are clustered together disproportionately in the capital.
Surely this shows yet another huge bias among national politicians and decision-makers towards arrogant, insular Londoners. In a word, no.
Firstly, the map also highlights similar, if smaller clusters in Manchester and Liverpool. Those cities are significantly less large than London in terms of population and built-up area, as the map also reminds us. But according to Onward’s figures, the North West region is the second highest recipient of overall cultural funding in England, with £516 per head of population compared to London’s £687. The national average is £144. So diverting funds from “rich” London to the “north of England” could well mean directing resources towards another region that is already disproportionately “rich” in funding.
And in fact Onward’s analysis shows that outside of the capital “the North” actually does better than “the South’: the three North of England regions receive the second, third and fourth highest spend per capita, with the South East, East Midlands and East of England receiving the least. London and the North West are way out ahead of the rest, but it remains true that those living in the South East receive roughly a third as much per head as those living in the North East. I am not arguing that this is a bad thing or shows a northern bias, but it is worth mentioning in view of Dorries’s announcement that all additional spending is to be sent northwards.
Secondly, this appears to be a cities issue, not one of “London versus the rest”. Theatre thrived in London in Shakespearian times for the same reasons that great restaurants are overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) concentrated in big cities: economies of scale. Shakespeare himself was not from London, but came to the big city in order to access the talent pools that enabled him to put on great plays and the size of potential audience to make such plays economically viable.
This simple economic fact remains the case, boosted in modern times by international connectivity, primarily via airports. Modern London provides an immense talent pool, but also an immense market. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Manchester, Liverpool and other big cities. This applies to galleries, museums and arts schools as well as to live performance venues. Cities are not the only places that need or deserve cultural institutions: local culture and organisations that spread opportunities need to be celebrated in smaller settlements as well. But cities can reach the most people – and people, unlike places, are mobile.
And this leads us to the third point: what cultural funding actually means. The Onward report acknowledges that London’s disproportionate share of national spending is in part because it is home to a great proportion of “national” institutions. Sometimes that home is merely the location of their headquarters, but in many cases the venue, gallery or museum itself is in the capital – think the Southbank Centre or the Royal Opera House.
Lucky Londoners, right? On one level, yes of course. But many of these “national” institutions, while based in the capital, cater first and foremost to visitors from elsewhere in the country and international tourists, rather than Londoners. Many are under great pressure not to appear “London-centric” in their activities.
There is a risk that if you strip London’s culture spend down you will simply remove that which is designed to cater to the needs of Londoners – many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds – and leave only tourist attractions and national institutions that happen to be based in the capital. That is, of course, assuming that we are planning to continue to fund those national institutions currently based in the accursed “London bubble” at all.
Spatially rebalancing the national economy is a national policy goal with a strong political mandate. “Levelling up” has to be a priority for UK central government. But let’s be careful about what we are talking about when we discuss it.
There are many different ways to draw the lines that define the different geographies of this nation – north and south, city and town, urban and rural. Where we choose to draw them and why is so important. There are many shorthands, stereotypes and assumptions that can easily weave in and out of these important conversations with potentially nasty outcomes for people’s lives. The devil, as always, will be in the detail.
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