Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by South West Arts



  South West Arts has consistently raised concerns about the benefits, practicality and cost-effective of the Arts Council's proposals.

  It is not a position that South West Arts has taken lightly. However, given the strength of opposition expressed in the region to the proposals, and South West Arts' legally prescribed position as an independent charity, we did not feel able simply to abandon the principles and beliefs that have guided our work for 50 years.

  We do not reject the need for change or improvement. We re-affirm that commitment here. But our position to date has been that diversity—in funding as much as in the arts—is fundamental to our cultural and social health. The arts are constantly finding new means of expression and new voices—at times so new that the arts funding system has been slow to recognise them.

  Large singular structures, no matter how much they delegate certain functions, run the risk of succumbing to fashion, blandness and centralised political imperative rather than deep cultural substance. It is why regional distinctiveness is so real, and significant.

  For half a century we have believed that it is the diversity of independent and public arts funding sources that protects and enhances the system. At our regional consultative meeting in September, Arts Council Chief Executive, Peter Hewitt, referred on numerous occasions to Regional Arts Boards that he thought he had advanced particular causes that the Arts Council had neglected. No doubt the opposite is also true. Our fear is that all this could be in danger of being lost.



  From the outset we have argued that a single organisation is neither the only, nor necessarily the best, way of achieving reform. The Arts Council remains certain—despite the fact that no alternatives have been "tested"—that this is the correct way to proceed.


  The proposals were originally described as a merging together of the existing Arts Council and ten Regional Arts Boards to create an entirely new organisation for the funding and development of the arts in England. It was one of the earliest "selling points" advanced by the Arts Council to reassure RABs that this was not a "takeover".

  However, even this is now not going to happen. There will be no new legal entity and the situation, at least in practical terms, is, in effect, not a merger but a takeover in which we are being asked to transfer to an amended Arts Council.

Royal Charter

  More positively, we welcome the commitment to developing a new approach to governance to be enshrined within a revised Royal Charter.

Image and identity

  South West Arts has expressed the desire to see the "new" organisation with a new name and visual identity.

  Given that we will be asked to transfer staff to the Arts Council of England (not a new legal entity) the symbols of newness—revised Charter, new mission, new identity—are felt to be essential.

  Consultants are engaged to look at "brand" and identity, and we await the results of their work. It will be a challenging assignment. RABs have strong "brands" within their regions—their distinct visual identity is one of the key ways that they demonstrate that they are of, and for, their regions. Arriving at a strong identity for a single new national organisation that can also accommodate a sense of regional "ownership" will be quite a task.


  The draft Transfer Proposal contained a clear statement on this issue—there cannot be devolution within a single organisation, only delegation. And whilst this fails one of the key "tests" set out by the Secretary of State, the position is at least clear. What is now needed is a much clearer specific explanation of the additional funding and decision-making responsibilities at regional level.

The "fit" with broader regional policy

  We are not clear how the Arts Council's proposals fit with broader issues of regional policy. Museums and libraries have re-affirmed the importance of independent regional agencies, and there is a view that Sport is decentralising to be more like the current arts structure. A DCMS report on the future of Regional Cultural Consortia is expected soon.

  We question why the Government seems to be strengthening regional self-determination through Regional Assemblies and Regional Development Agencies whilst allowing the dissolution of specialist regional agencies like the RABs. It has been difficult to reconcile DCMS approval for the proposals with other Government departments' approach to regional development. If, for example, the regional White Paper identifies culture as a key responsibility for regional assemblies, where does this leave the current proposals?

Local government

  The original proposals dealt inadequately with the contribution of local government, the importance of its partnership with the RABs and the role that local government might play in the new organisation. These issues have now been more carefully explained in the Arts Council's most recent version of the proposals, although practical detail is still somewhat lacking. But as far as it goes, this is a positive development of the original proposals.

  The precise nature of any future financial relationship between local authorities and the Regional Arts Councils is yet to be clarified.

  Regional Arts Boards currently receive funds from local authorities through subscription. This reflects the "membership" relationship that local authorities have with their Boards. As a consequence of the proposed changes there is a concern that this financial arrangement might not survive. If removed, this investment could represent a loss nationally of some £3.6 million and fatally compromise any savings that the Arts Council hopes might be achieved.


  It is difficult to provide a definitive view of the likely effectiveness of the Arts Council's proposals.

  Regional Arts Boards have asked the Arts Council to provide, at the very least, outline information on the new structure into which regional staff would be transferring. The Arts Council has not felt able to provide this information.

  As a consequence, we can have little real sense of how a new regional council will deliver the services expected of it.

The £8-10 million "savings"

  We wish to feel confident that the service offered in the future will be at least as good as that currently available. To date we have been sceptical of the rationale for, and desirability of, the proposed savings of £8-10 million. Some level of savings are both possible and desirable, not least through a reduced "centre". However, savings overall must be realistic, well founded, and not at the expense of service delivery. The Arts Council has provided no detailed explanation of how the £8-10 million figure was arrived at.

A "light touch"

  A simpler and less bureaucratic approach to arts funding and developed has been promised by the Arts Council as one of the most important benefits of the re-organisation. However, it is less clear how this will be achieved.

  The Arts Council's previous statements on these issues have been misleading and confused. We should certainly seek to minimise unnecessary bureaucracy and look carefully at our management of funding programmes. We should also accept that artists and arts organisations would greater simplicity.

  However, funding is just one aspect of our work. Arts development over a region the size of the South West requires informed and attentive involvement. Our experience demonstrates conclusively that the majority of those with whom we work want more of that attention, not less.

  Those who we work with value their access to expertise across the wide range of arts, cross-artform and technical disciplines that we are able to offer. We are concerned that any moves to "centralise" service functions might result in a diminution of important, locally accessible expertise.

The business case

  There is insufficient specific information in the Arts Council's proposals to make the case for this restructure, either in financial or organisational terms.

  Although a variety of assertions have been made, they lack substance and any basis in evidence. Our position has always been that the benefits of any restructuring must demonstrably outweigh its costs. If this is to be achieved, we need a rather more convincing explanation of the benefits than has yet been provided.


  We remain concerned about the deliverability of transfer in the given timeframe. The number of outstanding issues not yet resolved is large, and combining eleven organisations into one on such a tight timetable is high risk.


  At the time of writing we have yet to make a final decision in relation to the Arts Council's transfer request.

  As we face this decision, we have accepted that much of what we originally argued for we will not get.

  There is no structural option open to us other than that insisted upon by the Arts Council. There will be no merger of all parties into a new organisation—we are being asked to transfer into the existing Arts Council. There will be no new Royal Charter—instead there will be amendments to the existing Charter. There will be no devolution of funds or responsibilities, only Delegation. There will be no cost benefit analysis that justifies the disruption and expense that re-organisation will entail.

  On the evidence of the draft Transfer Proposal, we shall have no firm information on the funds that are likely to be available to the regions in the future.

  We will have no clear information on staff structures nationally and regionally. We will have no clear information on the level of staffing resources that the new regional offices will have, or that they will be adequate to meet the needs of what will be required.

  However, we must face up responsibly to the very real prospect that a decision not to transfer may result in the Arts Council withdrawing funds from South West Arts. Withdrawal of Arts Council funding would leave us with little or no funds with which to deliver South West Arts' charitable objects. That negative reason alone may oblige us to agree a transfer under charity law, however unwillingly and however unconvinced we might feel about the benefits that have been promised.

28 January 2002

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