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The aspirations of Chris Smith, new Labour Secretary of State for National Heritage

Smith hopes for Britain to rejoin UNESCO, aiming divert Lottery funds to health and education

Following Labour’s landslide victory, the appointment of Chris Smith as Secretary of State has been greeted with delight. After eighteen years of Tory rule, there are now prospects of important changes in the government’s policies on culture.

Appointments

Decision on all appointments in government lies in the hands of the Prime Minister (see biographies of the main figures).

Certain responsibilities for the arts also fall to regional government departments. The three departments and their key players are the Scottish Office (Minister for Health and the Arts Sam Galbraith), Welsh Office (Secretary of State Ron Davies) and Northern Ireland Office (Minister for Education Tony Worthington).

Renaming the department

“Heritage” is regarded by Labour as too backward-looking a word, but agreeing on an alternative has proved difficult. As we went to press, “Culture” was emerging as the top-runner, although it may well be paired with other words, possibly “Sports,” “Communications,” “Arts” or even “the Creative Economy.” The department’s responsibilities are likely to remain essentially the same—arts, museums, heritage, media, tourism and sport, as well as the vitally important National Lottery.

The Lottery

The first major substantive issue on the agenda was the National Lottery, and reforms were announced in The Queen’s Speech on 14 May. This followed Mr Blair’s surprise statement a week before the election calling for “a People’s Lottery”. After pointing out that the Lottery has proved more successful than anticipated in raising money for the five Good Causes (arts, heritage, charities, sports and the Millennium Commission), he pledged to divert some of the proceeds of the mid-week draw to education and health. Labour reiterated that Lottery money would not be a substitute for government spending, although there is concern that Mr Blair’s plan might eventually lead to a breach in the principle of “additionality”—which is that Lottery money should be in addition to normal government expenditure.

Mr Blair talked of £1 billion going to education and health over the next five years, which is £200 million a year. This means that each of the five Good Causes stands to lose £40 million a year. Since they currently each receive around £300 million a year, it would represent a cut of 13%. A White Paper on Lottery reform is expected to be published next month and a new National Lottery Bill will be presented to Parliament by the end of the year.

Mr Smith is also facing other tough decisions on the Lottery. Although the disbursers for the five Good Causes operate independently, the Heritage Secretary has a closer role with the Millennium Commission, which he chairs. By far the largest project of the Commission is the Millennium Exhibition at Greenwich, which has won only lukewarm outside support. Mr Smith is very concerned about its cost, currently estimated at £580 million, of which £200 million has been initially allocated by the Commission. There is also a rift between Millennium Central, the exhibition organiser, and their design company, Imagination. Birmingham is pressing the new Labour government to reconsider the decision to stage the event in Greenwich. A statement by the new Secretary of State on the Millennium Exhibition is expected early this month.

Mr Smith is particularly keen on a fair geographical balance of Lottery money and he is concerned about large prestige projects. As he explained, “We must avoid white elephant buildings. I’m happier with Lottery awards like those just made for the Arts for All programme [Arts Council] and urban parks [Heritage Lottery Fund].”

The new Labour Government is angry at the large profits now being made by Camelot, which amounted to £51 million in after-tax profits last year (1% of sales). Labour has now stated that in 2001 the Lottery contract will go to a non-profitmaking organisation. This would free profits to be disbursed to the Good Causes, but it is also vitally important to have an operator which is efficient and sustains spending on Lottery tickets.

Unesco

Britain is to rejoin Unesco, which it left twelve years ago over concern about its effectiveness and bias. Labour’s new Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is keen that the country should actively participate in Unesco, although the main responsibility for relations with the organisation will fall on the government’s new Department for International Development (formerly the Overseas Development Administration), under Secretary of State Clare Short. Internationally, the Labour government wants to increase its influence in the cultural world.

Museum charges

Labour promised in its pre-election arts paper, “Create the future,” that Lottery money would be used as an incentive to encourage free admission. It stated that “we will require the Arts Council and the National Heritage Lottery Board to take into account institutions’ polices for charging when considering applications for funding.” The two Lottery distributors are therefore anxious to see the precise terms of the DNH’s requirement.

This new criterion will put museums which charge in a difficult position. For example, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) last October introduced a £5 charge, to raise an anticipated £2 million a year and help balance its books in the face of falling government grants. But the museum is now seeking Lottery awards towards its £67 million Boilerhouse project and the £31 million refurbishment of its British Galleries.

The National Museums on Merseyside are now set on introducing charges. On 1 July they will impose a £3 charge, although this is relatively modest because it covers all its museums in the Liverpool area and is valid for a year. Last month a museum spokesman pointed out that the election had not resolved its financial difficulties, and “until grant-in-aid is increased, charges will be necessary.” However, behind-the-scenes efforts are being made to see if the government might be willing to increase its financial commitment to stave off charges.

The Museums & Galleries Commission has just commissioned a study on admission charges, to examine their financial impact. The study is being prepared by Glasgow Caledonian University’s Professor Stephen Bailey and his report is expected in November. As one of the responsibilities of the Museums & Galleries Commission is to advise government, Mr Smith may await this report before laying down a detailed policy on charges.

Designation

Designation is the other major issue facing museums. The proposal, which arose out of last July’s DNH museums review, “Treasures in trust,” is that up to thirty non-national museums in England with collections of “outstanding importance” should have this special status. In launching the review, the then DNH Secretary of State Virginia Bottomley promised that the Heritage Lottery Fund “will take account of Designation in the assessment of applications.”

The Museums and Galleries Commission quickly drew up the list of thirty designated museums and it was submitted to the DNH in March. An announcement by Ms Bottomley had been expected at the end of March, but this was delayed by the election.

Although museums have welcomed the concept of designation, there is widespread concern that thirty is too small a number and some outstanding collections will fail to get the new status. There have also been calls for a secondary grade to be introduced, of important collections in smaller museums. Mr Smith will be under pressure to publish the initial Designation list and provide more details of how the system will operate. An announcement is expected within the next few weeks.

Smoking ban

A ban such as already exist in France has been proposed on all forms of tobacco advertising and sponsorship. This has immediately aroused the concern of fund-raisers for the arts.

Government budget

It is striking how many of the issues now facing Mr Smith are related to the Lottery, evidence of its dramatic impact on the arts world. But there still remains the perennial problem of fighting for Treasury money. The DNH’s budget in the current financial year is £920 million, and although this is scheduled to increase to £960 million in 1998/9, the rise is accounted for by broadcasting expenditure. Spending on museums and galleries is planned to fall from £211 million to £207.5 million. Heritage spending (that is, for the protection and restoration of the built environment) will drop from £178.6 million to £174.8 million. After inflation is taken into consideration, the reductions will be even worse in real terms.

The arts world is anxiously waiting to see how Mr Smith performs in the annual expenditure round with Chancellor Gordon Brown in November.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A “creative economy”'