The Bishop of Worcester speaks on arts and culture in the ‘current financial climate’

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, for securing this debate and I pay tribute to the wonderful work that he has done in this area over many years, as I do to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, who has similarly done wonderful work. I claim no particular expertise, although I am passionate about the arts—perhaps that is something to do with the fact that it is sometimes said that many clergy are failed actors.

It is fortuitous that this debate is happening on the day of the launch of a study, report and review by the British Academy, Prospering Wisely: How the Humanities and Social Sciences Enrich our Lives. That report makes it clear that this country’s exemplary record in taking seriously these disciplines and the arts and learning from them is one of the major factors which make it as civilised as it is. They hold up a mirror to society and enable us to reflect on what makes for a good life and a healthy society. The same is true of the arts in general. In an age when the triumph of utilitarianism and consumerism sometimes seems to me to be almost complete, we need to remember that phrase, “prospering wisely”, which comes from King Alfred the Great.

However, there are real difficulties, as has been suggested, particularly in the provinces. Worcester boasts a wonderful arts organisation, Worcester Live, which is entrepreneurial in just the way that has been commended, but it is labouring under very difficult conditions because the green shoots of recovery have not yet found their way into people’s pockets. At the same time, county council funding has been reduced by 90% and there is no Arts Council funding, which, as been pointed out, tends to go to flagship venues. That is a matter of real concern. I suggest that one way to ease the situation would be for the Government to consider the distribution of lottery funding, which used to be much easier to apply for and broader in its remit.

There is good news in the midst of this era of financial stringency. The city of Worcester has at its centre a wonderful, imaginative new development entitled The Hive, which is a joint venture by the city council and the University of Worcester. They have together built The Hive, a library. The fact that they are working together in just the sort of partnership that has been commended is of great benefit to both the city and university in terms of availability of publications, opening hours and sharing of costs. It is an example of the imaginative partnership that should be encouraged elsewhere. At the same time, partly through the generosity of a local benefactor, there is an exciting plan soon to turn a part of the old porcelain factory into a state-of-the-art arts centre, so that Worcester’s fine artistic tradition can be developed yet further.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made clear, churches and cathedrals are at the centre of our cultural heritage and make an enormous contribution to the ongoing cultural and artistic life of this country. That is very much true of Worcester, which will be holding the Three Choirs festival again this year.
Despite all the pressures that exist on funding, I hope that, as a result of this debate, the Government will consider some of the suggestions that have already been proffered in order to do everything possible to encourage the arts and culture: in particular, by facilitating philanthropy, which has benefited us very greatly in Worcester, although it is still not as well developed as it might be; by enabling the sort of imaginative partnerships to which reference has been made during the course of the debate; and by looking again at how lottery funding is distributed.

Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, suggested, the Government should recognise that cathedrals and churches stand at the very heart of our cultural heritage and, as he put it so beautifully, reflect the soul of this country. They receive no direct government funding at the moment. The parish churches of our country, a wonderful gem, are looked after and maintained by small numbers of worshippers. It would be good if the Government recognised the importance of those buildings to our culture, in the way that the noble Lord suggested, by thinking again about what is happening with English Heritage. They are everyone’s heritage. It is to our benefit as a nation that they should be maintained and developed.

(via parliament.uk)

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