British Library Board (Power to Borrow) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:52 pm on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough 12:52 pm, 13th March 2020

I thank my hon. Friend for that piece of information. It leads me neatly on to what I was going to say. It is striking that Arts Council England has targets and is aggressively moving to spend more of its budget outside London, which I welcome. It is starting from a base line of an absurd proportion of spending in London and is moving, although more slowly than I would like, clearly in the right direction. The reason why total culture is so heavily weighted towards London is not primarily to do with Arts Council England but mainly to do with directly DCMS-funded national institutions, of which the British Library is a main example. In that category of spending, 90% of the spending is in London. That is what drives the huge imbalance in spending. So many of the institutions that we love and cherish are in London. The Department is trying to do more elsewhere, but there is a lot more to be done.

Our national museums and arts institutions have become more innovative and commercial over time, because sometimes you have to speculate to accumulate. That is why today we will be giving them borrowing powers so that they can invest to grow.

It is true that the current British Library building on Euston Road is not as universally loved as the old domed reading room in the British Museum. There are so many wonderful things about that old dome. It had, funnily enough, a papier-mâché ceiling and it was opened in the Victorian era to a breakfast feast that included champagne and ice cream, which is my kind of library. The new building still had a much better fate than the French national library. Francois Mitterand’s library was built at the same time and has suffered technological problems, industrial relations problems and problems with thermal loading. The heat coming into the large glass L-shaped buildings was damaging the books, and the French press were quick to say that it was typical of a Mitterand project that it ended up cooking the books. The British Library has been more successful than that, and than the old Birmingham library, now demolished, which Prince Charles said looked like a place where books were incinerated rather than read.

Despite the fact the new reading room is not quite as beautiful as the old one, which Louis MacNeice imagined in his poem “The British Museum Reading Room” as a great beehive under which scholars worked away to store up knowledge, it is a hugely important national institution doing more and more every day to support our national life and economic growth. We should be proud of it. It is a wonderful institution. I am also proud of my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, who is today introducing an important piece of legislation that will support and protect an important national institution to do even more for this country.