Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 90 - 99)




  90. Mr Robinson, I would like to welcome your colleagues and yourself here today. It is very nice to see you at the beginning of the year. I understand that before we start questioning you have a short statement that you would like to make.
  (Mr Robinson) Okay. It is very brief. We are here to talk about three subjects: the Royal Shakespeare Company, the South Bank Centre and I know you want to touch on the reorganisation of the funding system. I think the Royal Shakespeare Company is very straight forward. We admire the plans that they have put forward. We think that they are rightly ambitious. If there was an arts organisation in the country that one would say should be world class for us, then it must be the Royal Shakespeare Company. We believe, and we have been very insistent on this with them, that they have a very strong team in place to see this proposal through. We are working very closely with them and at each stage we will need to be absolutely sure that the project when it is finalised can be delivered within the budget that they have put forward. I think many of our problems have come from saying yes to projects because we are frustrated by the slowness of them and I think in a way the South Bank Centre absolutely fits that. Believe me, we are not prepared to do that, I think the huge errors which have been made in terms of the investment in the arts and other areas are criminal and we are never going to be willing to make quick decisions when we do not believe that the team in play is capable of carrying those into fruition. I think in a way that has been part of the problem certainly in the past with the South Bank Centre. I think you need three things for a project to work. You need good plans, you need good partnerships, you need good leadership and you certainly need, I think, good luck. I think it is fair to say that those things have been present at the South Bank Centre, unfortunately they have not always been present at the same time. There are particular difficulties at the South Bank Centre, as you have heard this morning. There are real challenges there. It is a complex set of circumstances, it is a complex venue and there are a lot of stakeholders involved. As I say, however frustrating we have not been prepared to put money behind a plan where we have not felt it was ready to be properly followed through and made to work. It has been difficult and it has been frustrating. There are real grounds for optimism now, as I think you have heard here this morning. I think the master plan is an intelligent way of approaching a very difficult overall site. However excited one got about the Rogers Plan we simply did not have the money to do it. It was not a very complicated decision, however much we talked about it we did not have the money so we stopped it because we simply could not provide the money that they needed for it. I think the way forward is intelligent. What is happening on the whole Royal Festival Hall I think is a good first start and I think once that comes into play at least we will see the beginnings of the South Bank Centre which has frustrated us all for a very long time. On restructuring, I think we now have—since we sat before you—a funding system here which works far better than it has ever worked certainly in the last 15 to 20 years. I do not think it is good enough yet personally, I want to see it better. I want to see it better for the arts, I want to see it better for arts' audiences. With an Arts Council and ten completely separate organisations in the Regional Arts Boards running over 100 separate schemes, as you can imagine the chances for getting it wrong are pretty high. We really want to see it brought together in a single organisation which really makes it much simpler for arts organisations to deal with this and which gives the arts a bit more of the recognition that it deserves nationally. Despite fears—and there are fears—these changes are not about centralising arts funding, they are absolutely not about that. People can say all sorts of things, and therefore it is important to look at the record of those who are saying them. Since Peter and myself have been involved at the Arts Council we have more than doubled the funding that is decided at regional level. That is because we believe that better decisions are made nearer the place of those decisions wherever that can possibly be the case. So it is completely wrong to assume that this is a greater centralisation. It is a simplification. It is a single organisation in which the Chairs at the regions will actually be on the Central Council and will have a far greater say in the national picture, in the national cake before it is divided up in the first place. It will give, also, greater accountability, something which I take very seriously, not least to Parliament, and the new organisation will give a better service, which is the most important thing, to artists and for arts organisations and for far less money than it takes now, a much simpler system. I know change is feared and it is often difficult. In fact, I do not think I have ever been involved with a change, I do not think I have ever seen a worthwhile change that has not drawn criticism while it is under way. I do not think that should deflect you from doing it if it is the proper thing. I am encouraged by the number of people in the arts who are really in the arts who are very positive about what has happened, sadly often very quietly and very privately but always passionately that what we are doing is the right thing and that is clearly the route that we take. Thank you.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed, Mr Robinson. John Thurso.

John Thurso

  91. I would like to start with that last section that you were talking about, the reorganisation, which you say is not a centralisation but inevitably when administrations are centralised there is a sort of centripetal force which goes on. Once you have the organisation centralised, there does tend to be a centralisation of power and you do not get the effect that you are looking for. Before I ask a question about that, can I just ask about the timing of the changes which are being put in. If this Committee were to wish to make some comments, when is it that the actual changes which are being put through are going to take place? If we wish to make a comment would we be in a position to do so before they have taken place?
  (Mr Robinson) We are hoping that the putting together of the organisations into one will have taken place by the end of March this year. It has been a very long process, a lot longer than I would have liked certainly, but that is in my nature, I guess. Secondly, it is not the end of the road at that point because I think once you have a single organisation it will then evolve in a sensible way to make sure that things which properly suit the individual regions are brought into play and that the plan for exactly how it works is not a "sorry, that is it" but becomes a normal part of any organisation which evolves. At any point it is possible to put an influence into the situation, we will be very happy to hear from you.

  92. The disappearance of the Regional Arts Boards, it is a pretty terminal event, it would be very difficult to go back to that if one found one had made a mistake?
  (Mr Robinson) As a completely separate legal organisation, yes. We were very clear about that, that was from the start a fixed point for us.

  93. From the written evidence that we have had, we have had quite a lot of it, it is pretty uniformly critical, and quite severely critical, some of it, both as to the philosophy and as to the detail. It has comments like "There was no business plan. No published costings. Lack of detail. The original paper was imposed without consultation. When consultation took place it was ignored." There is evidence from a Mr Charles Morgan which goes into the numbers which shows there have been very few savings, that cost at the centre has gone up with large pay rises and so on and so forth. If you take the whole volume of the evidence that we have had, it would suggest that the plans, despite the length of time they have taken to come to fruition, are a bit hasty, somewhat ill-conceived, lacking in detail, unpopular and unlikely to achieve their objectives. Given that they have now had the blessing of the Secretary of State from a Department which one of its former ministers recently described as dysfunctional, are you not in danger of creating the Picketts Lock of arts funding?
  (Mr Robinson) I take it that on balance you are in favour of this, John?

  94. Wholly.
  (Mr Robinson) Let me tell you, when you look at the evidence which has come in from people who have written in, which is quite strongly stimulated by the Regional Arts Boards themselves, it is about 50:50. When you take a completely independent and objective set of properly evaluated reaction amongst the arts community it is about 70 per cent who are either for or neutral. So it is not right that the arts community does not welcome this thing. Let me tell you that the first thing that the arts community think about the funding system is that they do not want to think about it at all and, frankly, I think that is the right way. It is something which should be operating efficiently and slickly behind the scenes, it should be making things happen with them in a way which is positive which they feel part of rather than some separate organisation and that is where we are getting to. I am absolutely certain that what we are doing here will help that process.

  95. You have said just then that 70 per cent of the real people in arts are in favour of it yet I think that in the evidence there is a quotation of the results of the first consultation which is something like 1,200, of which a substantial number were very negative or fairly negative and relatively few were positive. How does that gel with your statement?
  (Mr Robinson) Clearly a great deal has changed from the very outline statement which went out. What went out originally, I think correctly, because if you are going to run an organisation as a single unit it is not a very good start if you from the very start write out and say "This is how it is going to be in minute detail", what was said was "This is what we want to do and we want you to come together to make it work in a proper way". The detail of that has been fleshed out enormously since that first exercise, correctly so, and it has been helpful and I think we have ended up with a much stronger proposal as a result of it.
  (Mr Hewitt) I think it is important to get clear just what the balance of opinion is. The true position is that those responses that were, if you like, self-selecting, people who responded spontaneously, were something in the region of 50 against and 50 either neutral or in favour, that was of the people who responded themselves which, given that a natural inclination of the public is that they write when unhappy, happy people do not write, was not actually too bad. We then followed that up with opinion research amongst the arts community and other stakeholders and, as Gerry said, that produced a much more favourable response which showed that substantially more than 50 per cent were either unhappy or neutral. Therefore, I do not accept the proposal that this is universally disliked. One also has to take into account that it is natural in a circumstance such as this that those people who are dependent on funding from either an Arts Council or a Regional Arts Board or a new organisation in future inevitably many of them, those who are positive, will keep quiet for a while, they will sit on the fence and they will wait, that is the nature of the world that we are in. To turn to some of the actual objections that you refer to. I do think that many of those are simply wrong. There is no question that this is about greater delegation to regional level. Our record as an Arts Council is better in my view, and I cannot find another national organisation that has delegated more in recent years than the Arts Council has, and we want to continue that. Gerry and I have done that, Gerry and I will continue to do that, that is our intention. Secondly, before this came about there was not a single person in the arts world who did not complain about over-complexity, about the huge proliferation of schemes. We are addressing that. At the moment there are 111 schemes, we will put in place eight. Thirdly, we do want to work better together as one. One of the problems at the moment is that the structure itself leads to fragmentation of action. If we want to do something significant and bold in this country about the voluntary arts, about cultural diversity, about a particular art form, you cannot do it at the moment because you have 11 separate organisations, one regionally configured organisation can do that. I think the final point, it is a major benefit although it is not the driving force behind why we are doing this, is that we can save money. 711 people are employed in the 11 organisations at the present time costing £36 million. By making it one you can reduce that significantly and we are going to do that. There are very good, powerful reasons for making these changes and it is not true that the balance of opinion is as negative as you present it.

Michael Fabricant

  96. If I can just follow up the line of questioning to begin with regarding the restructuring. I have very much an open mind on this and anything that will mean that your money which you have access to could be used more efficiently, more effectively to promote the arts has to be a good thing. I would like to press, if I may, Mr Hewitt just to go into a tiny bit more detail precisely about how much money is going to be saved. You gave a number of reasons why these changes are needed but certainly one of them is to save money which can then be spent on the arts. You said £36 million is the sort of wages being paid to the people currently being employed by these different Arts Boards. What you noticeably did not say is how much of that £36 million is going to be saved? Are you going to get rid of all those people or is it going to be a small proportion of that? How much money is going to be saved and how much is that as a percentage of your overall budget?
  (Mr Hewitt) Yes. Firstly, the £36 million which I referred to is the overall overheads cost for the system, the Arts Council and RABs. We have set a target to save eight to ten million pounds of that £36 million. We need to test that further as we move forward because one of the outcomes of the disagreement that we have had with the RABs is that we have not been able to work as much together by now as we would have liked to have done. We need to work together and to put in place a structure together and then confirm the savings target. The present savings target is unequivocally eight to ten million pounds.

  97. What is that as a proportion of your total spend?
  (Mr Hewitt) It is eight to ten million pounds of £36 million in terms of administration. Our overall budget is £450 million heading up towards £500 million over the coming two years with increases in grant in aid.
  (Mr Robinson) It is about 20 per cent on the existing cost base.

  98. That is 20 per cent on the existing base, as the Chairman just said. It is eight to ten million pounds, if that is what you are able to save, of a budget of, in total, £500 million. Do you think it is worth it for all the angst that you are causing in the arts community?
  (Mr Hewitt) Not if it was just about savings but this is not just about savings, this is about making something work better. Give more decision making regionally, have an organisation that can really make strides for the arts, for artists, for arts organisations in future years. If we keep that to the forefront of our mind, and that is the reason why we are doing this, we are not doing it just to save money. If we keep those positive reasons to the forefront, I think it is worth making these changes. Eight to ten million pounds is not a small sum of money, it may be small in the context of half a billion but it is still a sizeable sum of money. As a body accountable to Parliament, as a body concerned about effectiveness and efficiency, I think it is beholden upon us to make such savings if they can be made.

  99. I suppose a criticism which could be levelled at the Arts Council is the amount of time it sometimes takes in order to make a decision about whether funding should be made available. Will that process be speeded up or are people who work in the arts right in fearing that by no longer having the regional structure which exists at present, although you argue that in fact there will be an even stronger regional structure, by centralising things there is some fear that processes will be delayed still further as we have witnessed, in fact, at the South Bank?
  (Mr Hewitt) No, that will not be the case, partly because it is our intention to give more grant giving powers to regional level, and to allow regional bodies to get on with it and make decisions. Where there does need to be proper and due consultation between the regional level and the national level, having a single organisation will make that much quicker, much smoother and much more streamlined. At the moment, for example, we are here today talking about major capital projects. We have a process whereby the RABs and the Arts Council of course have to be involved in discussions around major capital projects in this country. As separate organisations that is inevitably less smooth and direct than if we are one organisation. I think in both respects this should lead to a situation where we can reach decisions on grants much more quickly and much more smoothly than we have in the past.

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