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Labour peer describes UK arts provision as 'dangerously patchy' and calls for 'industrial revolution for the arts'.

Melvyn Bragg, speaking in the House of Lords
Lord Bragg said he wants "an industrial revolution for the arts"

A radical overhaul of arts in the UK is required to prevent the sector from "sleepwalking into permanent mediocrity", culture broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has warned.

Speaking in a debate in the House of Lords yesterday (1 February) on the contribution of the arts to the economy and to society, Lord Bragg cited concerns that theatres are facing closure because of local authority budget and fears that current government policy is "complacent".

"It is strange that, although over the past decade the creative industries have grown at 1.5 times the rate of the wider economy and contributed billions of pounds of business activity and exports, the profits drain away and the only begetter of the arts is left stranded on overdrafts," Bragg said. 


"This is at least unfair and at most blind to the power and potential of the arts.

"When they built the first steam engine, they did not say, 'Okay, we can do it — we’ll stop now'. They went on to create a network, here and abroad, with a brilliant non-university workforce. 

"Why do we stop here now, in this country, when it is losing its theatres, its music and its dance? 

"We are sleepwalking into permanent mediocrity, and cultural institutions once the guardians of the arts have, in crucial cases, become accessories to this deterioration."

Bragg said education is key to change and "can lead us to a new state of the arts" but said that uptake in GCSE music has dropped from 50,000 entrants in 2009 to 29,000 in 2022, with staff numbers in music and other arts dropping dramatically as a result.

"In 2008, under a Labour government, a programme was funded that revived group singing in 97% of all primary schools in the country, with a verifiable increase in discipline, attendance and work in classrooms," he said.

"Music mattered - it lit the flame - but the scheme was dropped. 

"Why cannot the 93% of children in our state schools receive the same musical offering that the 7% in private schools take for granted? It is shocking, unfair and just wrong—and what a waste.

Bragg said "enormous rewards" could come from building up the arts. 

"Let us look again at the Industrial Revolution — the greatest revolution, I would say, that the world has ever seen. Why do we not have an Industrial Revolution for the arts? It is possible."

Broken funding system

Also speaking in the debate Baroness Bonham-Carter, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for culture, said the funding system for the arts is broken at central, local and Arts Council England levels.

"Central Treasury funding for culture has seen a 40% reduction since 2008," she said.  

"Alongside this, local authorities have also been subject to a 40% real-terms reduction which means, due to the necessary prioritising of statutory responsibilities, that cuts have fallen disproportionately on arts organisations.

"Supporting local culture is not a cost; it is an investment."

Responding on behalf of the government, Arts Minister Lord Parkinson said that economic growth for arts is one of the key things identified by the government’s Creative Industries Sector Vision, published last year. 

"The vision makes it clear that we want to ensure that our creative workforce embodies the dynamism and talent of the whole UK, while addressing skills gaps and shortages," he said. 

"The arts are a vital part of that mission. In 2022, the arts sector contributed £9.5bn in output to our economy; that was a sharp rise from £7.4bn the year before. 

"We also saw increases in the workforce of the arts sector, which has grown at over 3.5 times the rate of the UK as a whole over the last decade. 

"However, there are important skills gaps and shortages that we must address to optimise its productivity, including in technical roles across our creative and cultural venues."

Review of Arts Council England

In response to concerns raised during the debate by some peers about Arts Council England and its relationship with central government, Parkinson said the forthcoming review of its functions, which is due to take place by the end of March, allows government to "ask some important structural questions about how it makes its decisions and sets its strategy". 

"I hope that noble Lords from all corners of the House help us to inform that review," he said.