Easier and more equal access to arts funding has been promised to artists and arts organisations as the former Arts Council of England officially joins forces with the former Regional Arts Boards to form a single organisation with nine regional offices, all under the name of Arts Council England (ACE).

In a new manifesto entitled ?Ambitions for the Arts?, which replaces all former policy statements, ACE outlines its priorities for the next three years.

The launch of the new body has also been marked by the simplification of the funding system, and sees over 100 separate application schemes being replaced with just five grant schemes ? for individual artists, for organisations, for national touring, for capital and for stabilisation.

Although full details of ACE?s spending plans for 2003-2006 will not be announced until the end of March, some headline figures have already been released. Individual artists have become a funding priority and are to benefit from £25m, compared with £4.5m in the current financial year. Projects and events, commissions, equipment, training, residencies and touring will all be eligible for funding under the new scheme, and grants can cover activities lasting up to three years.

As in Scotland, three-year funding is also on the cards for regularly funded organisations, who will continue to take the largest share of the funding cake. Money earmarked for these organisations will rise from £230m in 2003/3 to £300m in 2005/6. ACE has committed to helping them ?thrive rather than just survive?, but has made it clear that it will ?exercise the right to withdraw? investment from those who repeatedly mismanage or fail to deliver.? Responding to criticism that the former funding culture diverted organisations from their core artistic activities in order to meet funding criteria, ACE has stated its desire for future relationships to be ?based on trust, not dependency?, and has made it clear that they will not be asked to take on ?any agendas that are not consistent with their fundamental purpose and ambition.? They will be able to apply not only for grants for artistic product, but also for professional development and training, for organisational development to improve their long-term stability, and for audience development and marketing activity. Arts organisations based anywhere in the UK will be eligible to apply for touring grants of up to £200,000 for work of all kinds and scales to tour in England, and tours that cover Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will also be considered.

The support of culturally diverse arts is high on the new Arts Council?s agenda, with a particular focus on race and ethnic background. ACE has committed to taking ?positive action? to achieve greater equality of opportunity, by making more money available specifically for culturally diverse arts and by taking steps to change the employment profile and governance of arts organisations. Grant applicants are to be asked how many of their management committee members are from a range of ethnic groupings, and to indicate whether the activities for which their grants are sought are directed at or particularly relevant to specific ethnic or disability groups.

Applications for grants open on April 1, and applications can be made at any time before December 31 2004. Application forms are at http://www.artscouncil.org.uk, or from a central grants phoneline t: 0845 300 6100.