Belfast Telegraph

The cost of culture

By John Simpson

The bid co-ordinated by Derry/Londonderry deserved the accolade of the first UK City of Culture, and it’s another sign of how that city can exploit, constructively, its cultural and environmental assets.

Northern Ireland can boast of a good quality of environmental, cultural, and man-made assets. Enhancing the quality of life is a shared objective not just for locals but, also, to attract people to visit Northern Ireland on holiday, on business, or for investment.

Additional benefits can be generated if Northern Ireland adds to its natural environment a range of man-made opportunities, whether in entertainment, creative industries, the arts, historic discoveries, or other creative and recreational activities. This makes the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure a key player.

In recent years there have been numerous extra investments. The Ulster Museum has been refurbished, costing nearly £20m. A decade ago the Odyssey project was completed, at a cost of over £30m. The public sector has spent significant sums on diverse cultural assets, such as the Ulster American Folk Park, the Ulster Transport Museum, the Armagh Planetarium, and the Armagh County Museum.

New theatre facilities, aided by public funds, have been commissioned at the Millennium Forum in Derry, the Ardowen in Enniskillen, the Riverside Theatre in UU at Coleraine, and the new Lyric and the MAC in Belfast.

Focusing more on the historic inheritance, large amounts of public money are going into the building of the Titanic Signature Project and the improved interpretative facilities at the Giants Causeway. Government has invested in a modern public records facility, PRONI, for genealogical and historical research.

In parallel, major capital investment in key sports facilities is assured through Government capital grants.

As taxpayers, we have invested heavily in our cultural capital facilities. There is a continuing commitment to financially support contemporary performances in music, theatre, and art through either the Arts Council or similar local efforts. There are other examples of support, such as Belfast Zoo.

Is this investment worth doing? Where does it rank against stringent Government funding limits? How should the benefits of these investments be assessed?

Returns on these investments are difficult to quantify. They rely on subjective judgements. That argument is not a valid excuse to avoid evaluating their impact.

There are some easy generic answers. Better investment in sports and other physical activities will improve fitness and performance standards. Whether by reputation or performance, Northern Ireland people can gain acknowledgement.

In many respects, Northern Ireland is a success story as a cultural and artistic society. More remains to be done, and priorities must be set.

However, investment in cultural, artistic, and recreational facilities cannot escape a credibility and viability test. Where facilities or services are revenue earning, or have the potential to earn revenue, then a system of charges for access makes sense.

Tourists are welcome because they generate revenue, not to impose costs on taxpayers. Free admission to facilities financed by taxpayer funds is a degree of unappreciated generosity.

To state the stark contrast, it makes little sense if tourists are attracted to Northern Ireland and can enjoy the man-made features of the environment without any charge. Why do we subsidise tourist visitors? Entry charges should be the norm.

When a case is made for access free of charge, then there should be a rationale. Local students engaged in active learning might merit concessions, whilst normal adult visitors should pay modest charges.

Two policy conclusions are suggested. First, the principle of modest charges should be accepted and any waiver of charges should be by exception. Second, Government financial assistance should be evaluated with an explicit requirement that revenue will be raised from users.

Are the Ulster Museum, the Giants Causeway and Titanic Signature projects listen

Belfast Telegraph