On Wednesday the 23rd of October, our Health and Social Care secretary, Matt Hancock, laid out his plans to improve NHS patient wellbeing through the use of the arts. The idea behind this proposal is that every NHS patient in the country should have as great an access to arts prescriptions as they do medical care. Just how will this be done, you ask? Through the creation of a National Academy for Social Prescribing, which will receive a whopping grand total of government funding worth… £5 million.
Yes- you read that correctly: just £5m will be given by the government to create a national framework to prescribe the arts to patients all over the United Kingdom.
There will be some who believe that this is a good thing, and in principle it is. Arts are an incredibly important pillar in society, and the fact that their importance is getting more recognition should be celebrated. However, the creation of the ‘academy’ that Matt Hancock is proposing ultimately relies on the presence of a strong arts and culture foundation in the UK.
When you look at the facts, such a foundation does not exist in this country due to the policies of the current Conservative government. According to research from the County Councils Network (a Tory-controlled body) over £400million has been cut from local authority spending on arts and culture since 2010. Labour have a much more damning figure- they estimate that the cuts to arts funding stands at over £1 billion from 2010 onwards. No matter which figure you believe, it is very apparent that funding for arts and culture has been cut time and time again under the Conservative government. Nine years of austerity under Tory leadership has resulted in the need for local authorities to heavily tighten their budgets, and as the arts do not benefit from statutory status. (This means that they are not protected; they are seen as an easy target for cuts.)
Earlier this year, The Guardian reported that cuts to arts funding in 2019 are going to come as social care costs are increasing, due to the rising number of children being taken into care, as well as the need to look after an aging population. These cuts at the local level are extremely important. Local authorities are the biggest funders of arts and culture across the country, and as such any cuts to their funding means that local arts organisations are likely to be irreparably damaged or stopped completely in areas that desperately need them.
These cuts to arts funding expose the deep flaw in Matt Hancock’s plan. If there is no solid arts foundation across the country, how will GPs be able to recommend the arts as a prescription for their patients? Say funding has been cut completely in rural areas of the UK – if there is nothing available in the nearest village, someone in the rural countryside can hardly be expected to travel miles and miles to their nearest city, especially if they are elderly. Forget about this academy and creating a standardised practice and procedure for GPs, Matt Hancock should instead focus first on the creation of a thriving arts and culture section of society before moving onto figuring out how to incorporate the arts into NHS prescription practice.
Overall, it appears that although the ideas behind this new ‘academy’ are a step in the right direction, once again it seems like the Tory government are making promises that they cannot keep and forgetting the damage that past policies have inflicted, in this case on the arts and culture sectors of the UK. It remains to be seen whether this policy will have any impact, or if it even manages to get off the ground (just like the Tories promise to build 200,000 starter homes never came to fruition), but the underlying message is clear: the arts are an incredibly important aspect of British society, and need to be cultivated before they can be incorporated as part of prescription services in the NHS.
Words by Yasmin Bye.