Just why are we wasting so much money on the Royal Opera House?

Unlike the British Library, the opera house is not central to the nation's cultural activities

WHICH IS the odd one out among these cultural institutions? They all have new buildings. Take a journey round London to see them. In Trafalgar Square, the Sainsbury extension to the National Gallery has now been open a few years and is a wonderful improvement. Go into Covent Garden nearby and see the new Royal Opera House taking shape. The visitor should next drop down to the Thames and travel east to Bankside to find the disused power station which is being converted into a home for the Tate Gallery's collection of modern art.

Then go north to Bloomsbury, to the British Museum, where is being created the finest new public space in the capital for many years. This is the Great Court Scheme, due for completion in 2000. An inner courtyard, of vast size and noble proportions, hidden from view since the middle of the last century, is being opened up to reveal the domed Reading Room. It will be the city's first covered square. I agree with the scheme's architect, Sir Norman Foster, when he says that "what I think we have found is not just a new heart for the British Museum, but a great new public plaza for London".

Finally, walk briskly north for 20 minutes or so until you reach Euston Road. Look to your right, where St Pancras station stands, and there, crouched alongside, is the brand new British Library building. It has taken longer to construct than some medieval cathedrals, and was finally opened by the Queen last Thursday.

These new buildings have been paid for in different ways. The Sainsbury extension to the National Gallery was financed by the family whose name it bears before Lottery money became available. The Sainsburys have also contributed handsomely to the Royal Opera House, and to the British Museum, where they are underwriting the new galleries for the African collections.

The British Library is by far the most expensive project, at pounds 520m, a sum almost entirely provided by the Government; however John Ritblat, the brilliant property entrepreneur, has paid for a gallery which will house the Library's finest treasures, and Pearson Group, owner of The Financial Times, has also given support.

The Royal Opera House, the Tate and the British Museum have employed the now classic formula of Lottery grant plus matching donations from private benefactors.

By the way, I calculate that the total cost of these five building projects amounts to pounds 967m. Even leaving out of account the Millennium Dome, this is an enormous sum of money. The 1990s will have been a vintage decade for constructing new cultural edifices in the capital city.

Yet in this statement lies paradox. The five institutions confront the same perplexity. They are rich in capital for building projects, yet poorly endowed in income. The British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tate have alike narrowly avoided having to charge entry fees for the first time. At the last moment, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made funds available. None has any significant funds of its own for acquisitions, so the collections have become static. The Royal Opera House, in a desperate move, has just demanded that its pounds 15m a year grant be doubled. But the most pressing case may be the British Library.

The British Library is not only the place where one finds the earliest manuscript of the complete New Testament, the oldest surviving Buddhist texts, the Lindisfarne Gospels, two copies of the Gutenberg Bible (the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using moveable type), the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle, the Magna Carta, the first collected edition of Shakespeare's plays, and the manuscript containing the lyrics of the Beatles' single "I Want to Hold Your Hand"; it is also the United Kingdom's national library. It has been receiving a copy of every British publication since the Copyright Act of 1842. To access and to make available this vast store of knowledge, around 9,000 visits are made to the Library's reading rooms in a typical week, 10,000 items are consulted, 12,000 reproductions are made and 13,000 enquiries answered. Likewise over 76,000 requests a week for remote document supply are received, 46,000 searches of the Library's website are made, and 60,000 searches of the on-line catalogue conducted. It could be argued that it is the country's most important cultural institution.

The Library receives an annual grant of just over pounds 80m and there will be no increase for three years. It charges for its services where it reasonably can, so that the proportion of its spending covered by the government grant has declined from 88 per cent in 1974 to 73 per cent this year. None the less, the Library considers that it is now under-funded by pounds 8m a year, and that this gap is likely to rise quite quickly to some pounds 20m a year as the demands for its services - a statutory duty to meet - increase. That is why it is considering charging for access to its reading rooms, at a rate of perhaps pounds 300 a year for regular users. This would break a 250-year-old tradition. Neither Karl Marx nor George Bernard Shaw paid to consult the Library's volumes.

Now turn to the Royal Opera House again. Unlike the British Library and the others, it is not central to one of the nation's cultural activities. The musical life of the country would not be unduly damaged if there was no Royal Opera House. I say this although I have greatly enjoyed many performances there. Its point of distinction is that, if properly funded, it can employ the world's greatest singers and lay on sumptuous productions, whereas the English National Opera, just down the road at the Coliseum, does not do so, although it attains high standards.

But also compare the Royal Opera House's demands with the value of a quite different musical initiative announced a few days ago. Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, has set up a Youth Music Trust which will be given pounds 10m a year of Lottery money to improve music teaching in schools. Mr Smith's long-term aim is to ensure that any young person anywhere in the country who wants to play an instrument will have the opportunity to do so. That would be a crucial development.

Everything about the Royal Opera House seems out of proportion. Its new building is more costly than either the Tate or British Museum schemes, yet the number of people who will benefit from the new facilities is much smaller - perhaps a tenth of the 6 million a year who visit the British Museum. The extra grant it has requested could be used in a more culturally enriching fashion for the nation if spent by, say, the British Library in avoiding charges for access to its reading rooms and restoring its services to what it considers to be a minimum level of effectiveness. Many other institutions, too, could make a better argument.

Later today Sir Richard Eyre's report on the Royal Opera House will be published. I hope it won't make a case for special treatment. Unlike the other cultural institutions I have mentioned, the Royal Opera House is marginal, truly the odd one out of the five.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor