Government cuts 'hampering digital economy'

Written by Chi Onwurah on 22 February 2016 in Opinion
Opinion

The government’s rhetoric on digital transformation does not match the reality of underperformance, says Chi Onwurah MP.

Last month I helped launched STEAM.Co North East, a community based initiative to promote Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths in our communities, with the Chair of the Arts Council, Sir Peter Bazalgette.

As the shadow minister for culture and the digital economy, a chartered engineer and a long term fan of the arts, I know the importance that both culture and the digital economy play as platforms which can not only launch careers, jobs and economic growth but fuel new opportunities and ideas, and reinforce communities.

I should say that I’m also quite a fan of Steampunk, the back to the future Victoriana Sci Fi fusion based arts movement. And whilst I was (just) too young to be a punk I regard it as a democratising movement which broadened the quality and authenticity of popular music.

So I want to make it clear it’s no slur on punks but rather an indictment of this Government if the Department of Culture Media and Sport brings the term STEAMpunk to mind, undermining the UK’s Science, Technology, Engineering Arts and Maths base with a combination of incompetence and ideological dogma.

Unlike the 70s punks they are not upfront about their disruptive ambitions. Government talks a good talk on everything from digital infrastructure to diversity in broadcasting. But when we look at the reality it is much less inspiring.

Take the roll out of broadband. The digital revolution is in full throttle, those ambitious start-ups like Google and Facebook, for so many years criticised for not making profits, are now criticised – rightly – for not paying taxes on profits equivalent to the GDP of some countries. For many, separation from their tablet or smartphone constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment, and the Government itself is committed to digital by default.

And yet there are still millions of households and businesses that have no access to the internet. Yet the Government’s ambition is limited to getting only one of those many millions online in the next five years.

Or take education. At a time when creativity, rather than cost, is our key competitive advantage the Department for Culture’s influence on education policy is such that they’ve achieved zero Arts and Design subjects in the new EBacc.

Or what about culture and the arts more widely? The core of our national and individual identities, the basis for a creative industry worth billions and the source of pleasure and enjoyment for so many. You and I support, through taxes, about £70 per year for every person in London for arts and culture. And London is rightly recognised as a world-leading cultural centre. But for those outside London, the Government spends just £5 per head on culture. As the capital city it is perhaps not surprising that many national cultural institutions are based there.

That imbalance is a long-standing problem made even worse by the local Government spending settlement. I know that Labour councils – who have been hardest hit – will do everything they can to protect the arts and culture in their areas. 

But how will they truly be able to invest in arts and culture, ensure the budding musician has access to an instrument or the next Eddie Redmayne Oscar winner can get the lucky chance without going to Eton, when the Government is not giving them enough to ensure basic services are provided for?

I am pleased that treasured national institutions continue to get support from the Government. That is right. But culture is so much more than that and many cherished local theatres, museums and galleries must now be worried about their future.

Another treasured national institution worried about its future is the BBC. Its unique position has allowed it to moot innovative and radical ideas like that of the Digital Public Space that can open up the arts and culture to wider and more diverse audiences as well as supporting our creative industries across the board. But it’s clear that Ministers have Auntie in their sights, as well as Channel 4, so successful in its brief for innovation that apparently it must be sold.

What used to be called the Ministry of Fun, responsible for bringing us the Olympics and free museums, has become the cultural wing of the Treasury, responsible for cultural assaults, ideological dogma and reckless funding cuts: more STEAM vandals than STEAM punks and ultimately it’s the nation’s creativity and skills that will suffer. 

Chi Onwurah is shadow minister for culture and the digital economy and Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central

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