The arts are integral to a thriving Britain and must not be penalised for their success

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The months before a general election are never a time for seriously innovative policy-making. They are a time when ministers tend to swing between flashy vote-catching initiatives and playing safe. The Government's new funding settlement for the arts would seem, nonetheless, to be evidence of particular timidity.

The months before a general election are never a time for seriously innovative policy-making. They are a time when ministers tend to swing between flashy vote-catching initiatives and playing safe. The Government's new funding settlement for the arts would seem, nonetheless, to be evidence of particular timidity.

As we report today, leading figures in the arts world are up in arms over a likely freeze in their funding for the coming financial year. After three years in which arts budgets have increased, sometimes handsomely, they fear a return to what they describe as the "stop-go" funding they experienced under the Conservatives. This, they justifiably complain, makes any sort of longer-term planning impossible.

There can be no question that a freeze on funding - which is what they are facing, without even an increase for inflation - would be counterproductive and undo at least some of the good that has accrued from past increases. An inability to plan tends to increase costs, as everything has to be calculated for the short term - or postponed indefinitely. It also discourages originality and risk-taking, characteristics for which the arts in Britain have gained such a name in recent years.

Some of the arts leaders who have gone public say they feel especially aggrieved - "betrayed" is their word - because they believe they made precisely this case at a Downing Street meeting late last year. Their conclusion is that either they failed to express their arguments convincingly enough or their warnings were simply flouted. Nicholas Hytner - the highly successful director of the National Theatre - says the funding freeze may reflect "carelessness" rather than treachery. But he makes the point that the arts world responded "spectacularly well", perhaps better than any other public service, to the injections of extra cash.

By and large, he is right. More generous funding did have an immediate and thoroughly beneficial effect on the arts in this country. The abolition of paid entry to museums was especially successful, raising attendance figures dramatically and broadening the social mix of visitors almost overnight. Less noticed, but no less beneficial, is the relative calm that has prevailed in hitherto troubled sectors, such as opera, accompanied by critical praise for individual new productions. Theatres and festivals outside London have also flourished.

This is one reason why Mr Hytner and others, such as Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate Gallery, are so unhappy now. But they are also public figures of some influence and experience, and their very vocal complaints at this stage may also be interpreted as an effort to turn the screw of publicity just a little tighter in the hope of extracting something more. An increase that compensates for inflation would seem the very least that ministers should offer.

In this election year, however, the Government's generosity is being concentrated on those areas, such as health and schools, where improvements have been slower to make themselves felt than in the arts.

As Sir Nicholas laments, the Government's apparent decision to freeze funding for the arts suggests that ministers see culture as a soft touch, a sector that is a bit of a luxury rather than an essential component of people's lives, a sector where the funding tap can be turned on or off at will. And here, too, the complaining luminaries of the arts world have a point. As London's Olympic bid gathers pace, Downing Street has played its part; nothing has seemed too much trouble. Sport has raced up the list of priorities, even though this Government has been as negligent as the last in not preventing the sell-off of playing fields. Why do ministers, including Mr Blair, seem so reticent when it comes to promoting the arts?

It is true that, as Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell has made sporadic efforts. Last year, she went so far as to call culture and the arts "fundamental human rights". She also argued that what culture did for the country could not be reduced to a set of sums. What a pity, then, that she seems to have forgotten her own advice so soon.

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