What the spending review means for museums

Alistair Brown, 02.12.2015
Alistair Brown on the chancellor's statement
The dust has by now settled on the spending review and, to read the papers, you’d think that all our funding problems have been resolved. The chancellor found some extra cash down the back of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s sofa, and didn’t have to impose the 25-40% cuts across central government departments that he had asked them to model.

Free entrance to national museums is protected; Arts Council England received a relatively inconsequential 5% cut to its finances over the next five years – and the chancellor proclaimed that cuts to the arts would be a "false economy" as he handed out funding for a range of new galleries, new storage facilities and new military memorials.

So far, so good. These outcomes are a testament to the strong advocacy that museums and sector bodies have carried out over the last year. Together, we have demonstrated how important museums are to a range of key government priorities – delivering social impact, making our towns and cities better places to live and work, improving the UK’s soft power – the list goes on.

But we’ve also had the opportunity to take a close look at the chancellor’s plans since the 25 November, and they show that the battle campaign is far from over.

The government’s changes to local authority financing are a huge cause for concern. Plans to phase out the central government grant to local authorities means a £6.1bn cut to local authority finances – that’s 56% of the total central grant. The chancellor wants local authorities to make up the shortfall through taking control of 100% of business rate receipts (at the moment they only keep 50%).

The central government grant helped to ensure a degree of redistribution to ensure that local authorities were able to meet local needs across the country. The business rate system of top-ups and tariffs means that redistribution between authorities occurs to a much smaller extent. So this move will clearly create winners and losers. Those with a high business rate base will benefit far more than those with a smaller number of businesses, thereby accentuating existing inequalities.

Meanwhile, local authorities are also being given the power to alter business rates in order to help foster the creation of local businesses and investment. This has provoked fears of a race to the bottom between local authorities to the detriment of local services, and introduces a further level of uncertainty to the local authority funding picture.

All of this adds up to a very complex situation for local authority funded museums (including many trusts) and for those who work in them. Some may find that their position is looking slightly better than expected; many others will see these moves as hastening the demise of public investment in local culture, particularly in those poorer areas where we know that culture can makes such a difference to people’s lives.

London looks set to move even further away from the regions. And Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will see the impact further down the line as they manage new funding settlements.

The Spending Review provokes some very serious questions about the future for local culture, particularly in England. Will a huge number of museums be allowed to go the way of the five announced closures in Lancashire? Or will other bodies be willing to step in and save the day?

It seems to me that Arts Council England, with its minimal budget cut, needs to consider playing a greater role in protecting local museums over the next five years. Their current strategy means investing where they see great ambition for culture from local authorities.

Yet under the Spending Review plans, the number of councils that are able to show such ambition is likely to shrink. Could the current arts council approach reward museums in better-off areas to the detriment of those local authorities that can only budget for minimal non-statutory spending? It’s time for a rethink.


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02.12.2015, 16:25
hmm, if you mean that London LA's will be better off by 'London looks set to move even further away from the regions' I think you might be mistaken. Yes some London Boroughs are very successful (nods at City of London) and there is huge potential for business rate income gains, but most are not. The LA museums in these Boroughs will suffer just as much as in Boroughs outside of London. London might appear to well off but it has some of the most economically deprived boroughs in the UK and the LAs there (which are really 32 relatively small LAs + 1 bizarre City State) are going to really struggle to keep their social care and children services going with this settlement let alone their cultural offer. Can we please stop falling for the divide and conquer strategy that works but creating infighting within sectors so that cuts can be easily ushered through/defended by Central Government; Can we collectively speak up for LA museums where ever they are and whomever they serve; and for the museums and the sector they belong to that benefits not only their localities but the rich cultural tapestry of the whole of the UK.
Alistair Brown
Policy Officer, Museums Association
02.12.2015, 16:42
Yes indeed, I could have made this clearer in the piece - the nationals have been largely protected, but the effect on London-based LA museums will be as bad as many other places, given the huge strains on existing statutory services in many of the boroughs. Certainly not trying to pit London LAs against the rest of the country.