Local authority museums in England at risk as councils in crisis

Survey finds 80% of councils fear for their financial sustainability
Patrick Steel
Local authority museums in England, which are non-statutory, are at risk as 80% of councils fear for their financial stability, according to a recent survey.

The State of Local Government Finance Survey, published last week by the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) and the Municipal Journal, found that 95% of councils are planning to raise council tax, while two thirds will be forced to spend from their reserves.

Earlier this month Northamptonshire County Council was forced to issue a section 114 notice “in light of the severe financial challenge facing the authority and the significant risk that it will not be in a position to deliver a balanced budget by the end of the year”.

The notice means no new expenditure is permitted, with the exception of safeguarding vulnerable people and statutory services.

The council does not directly fund any museums, but a £20,000 a year grant to Museums Development East Midlands (MDEM) for its work with training and volunteer development for museums in the region will be cut from April.

“Northamptonshire County Council’s decision to enact an emergency budget order demonstrates the real pressures that local councils and authorities are experiencing," said a spokeswoman for Arts Council England, which is the main funder of MDEM.

“We do understand these are challenging times and all local authorities must set a budget that delivers and is sustainable in the longer term, but investing in arts and culture will have an important long term impact on a town’s people and economy.

“We do not anticipate any immediate impact on the arts council’s investment in Northamptonshire but once the implications of this order become clear in late February we will work closely with local stakeholders and partners to assess any next steps we might take in relation to funding in the area.”

An investigation published last week by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has identified financial problems at Surrey County Council, which is £25m short of its target for spending cuts in this financial year. It also faces a £105m gap over the next year - the equivalent of over 12% of its current budget - while its reserves have halved in the last five years.

Surrey Heritage, which oversees the Surrey History Centre, the county's heritage conservation team, and the Surrey County Archaeological Unit, has suffered in-year cuts of £85,000 from its £1m budget.

Local authority grant income from central government has fallen by £16bn since 2011, according to figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. And, says the LGIU, government plans for councils to transition from grant funding to relying on local business rate income by 2020 have been delayed, meaning “councils are facing the 2020 cliff-edge without a clear idea of how they will be funded afterwards or how much money they will have”.

“The MA has been warning for years that cuts to local authority funding will push some councils to the edge,” said Alistair Brown, the Museums Association’s policy officer. “Some have now reached crisis point, and many more seem to be close behind. That’s hugely concerning for hundreds of museums that are wholly or partly reliant on local authority support.

“The current difficulties in local authority funding will only be exacerbated if the government fails to ensure a smooth transition to the 100% business rate retention model by 2020. We’re concerned that government resources are tied up in dealing with Brexit when this looming crisis should be at the very top of its to-do list.”

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