UK Spending Review

November 25 2015

Image of UK Spending Review

Picture: AFP

Today the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, unveiled details of his five yearly spending review. This sets out what government departments here in the UK will get to spend over the next five years.

There had been dire warnings of 'massive' cuts to the arts. The Labour party said it would be 30%, many in the sector were claiming it would be 40%. In the end it was 5%. Other government departments have to deal with far larger cuts; Transport is down by 37%, Business by 17%.

The current DCMS combined budget (that is revenue funding and capital funding together) is £1.5bn. Next year it will be £1.6bn, the same the year after, but then it will be £1.5bn, and then £1.4bn. If the economy improves there will be scope for improvement towards the end of the five years. Inflation is low at the moment. The Arts Council budget will not be reduced. And Lottery funds, which the government increased, continue to roll in for arts and heritage projects across the country. Free entry for museums will be protected. Other annoucements included a new £150m storage unit for the British Museum, V&A and Science Museum. More details here.

In other words, the much vaunted 'cuts' are, while not ideal, not much to worry about. George Osborne evidently sees the value of state funding of the arts. Good for him. Those in the sector are now busy saying that their collective campaigning over the last few months has been successful, and while I applaud their efforts and enthusiasm, I'm not so sure it made a great difference. These decisions are taken by a handful of people at the top of government, and personally I think the likes of George Osborne see merit in the arts with or without a Twitter campaign. Above all I think we need to commend the effective messengers within government who have championed the arts; step forward Ed Vaizey (who I think must now be the longest-serving arts minister we've had) and, latterly, John Whittingdale. Those who said the Tories were philistines and don't care about the arts have been proved wrong - and I'm afraid I'll always be proud of having played a tiny role in making the Tories arts friendly. Of course, this hasn't stopped the likes of the Museums Association greeting today's news with gloom. 

There is one area of concern, however. Regional museums, those funded by local councils, are likely to face further cuts as a result of reductions to the budget for the Department of Local Government. Of course, it is up to local councils how they apportion their funds, and in too many cases excessive cuts to museum services are made because local councillors know they can get away with it. Library closures always generate protests. Museum cutbacks? Not so much. The government needs to think more broadly about how it can protect, with a national effort, the many wonderful regional museums we have in this country.

One policy announced by the Chancellor may not immediately help this cause, though. He said that he wants to encourage local councils to raise cash from asset disposals, and cited a headline figure of £255bn of local government assets. But I've just checked the figures, and of this £255bn (of which most is pretty fixed and unsellable) over £3.5bn is described as 'heritage assets'. I may be being unduly anxious, but we must all hope that asset stripping councillors don't start eyeing up museum buildings, and collections.

Update - a reader writes:

Further to you incisive piece re the autumn statement, as you rightly say regional/council cuts are a different matter. Here in Ludlow we have the Museum/Resource Centre which has been a regional hub of expertise for 25+ years, especially for natural history/geology. All the expert staff/curators have recently lost their jobs and it is now run by some volunteers and one very part-time curator based over 20 miles away in Shrewsbury - so it has been totally undermined as a functioning museum in any meaningful sense. I fear this story is being repeated all over the country.

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