Government and cultural sector bodies must “to take immediate action to safeguard the future of local cultural infrastructure in the context of rising costs”, a report by the Commission on Culture and Local Government has said.
The commission was set up in spring this year by the Local Government Association to investigate the role of England's council-funded culture in supporting recovery from the pandemic. Sixteen commissioners sat on the panel, including Arts Council England chair Nicholas Serota, Neil Mendoza, who authored the 2017 review of museum provision in England, and Sara Wajid, co-CEO of Birmingham Museums Trust.
The panel, which was chaired by baroness Lola Young, heard from almost 150 organisations on the contribution of culture to current societal challenges.
In a report published this week, the commission outlined evidence showing that a healthy local cultural ecosystem was essential for creating resilience places, fostering an inclusive economic recovery, improving social mobility and tackling health inequalities.
However the report acknowledged that the financial and political landscape had changed dramatically since the commission was established, with soaring costs and rising demand for statutory services leaving councils in England facing an expected in-year deficit in council budgets of around £2.4bn.
The report said that, although current challenges such as the cost of living crisis mean “it would be tempting to dismiss investment in cultural services as a luxury we can’t afford”, such services “have never been more important”.
“Cultural services, organisations and practitioners bring people together at times of crisis and celebration, they provide support and social connection, create jobs, develop new adaptive skills, and underpin empathy and critical thinking,” it continued.
The report found that local authorities invest £1.1bn directly in cultural services in England each year, creating £1.23 in additional turnover for every £1 invested.
Barriers facing publicly funded culture include access barriers, local leadership, structural capacity, funding reductions and lack of policy alignment, data and evidence.
The report said that, in addition to immediate action to protect cultural infrastructure in light of rising cost, a longer-term action plan was needed to deliver four areas of ambition and four cornerstones of cultural placemaking.
Areas of ambition
Access and inclusion. Locally accessible and inclusive cultural infrastructure for all, addressing the structural inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic.
Creative growth. Removal of barriers to growth of creative industry clusters and micro-clusters to support the development of the creative sector as an engine of post-pandemic growth.
Cultural education and pathways to creative employment. Access for all in all places to a high-quality cultural education and routes into the burgeoning creative industries from schools through to further and higher education and employment.
Health and wellbeing. A strategic approach to health and wellbeing in place that recognises the preventative and health benefits of culture in supporting our national recovery.
Cornerstones of cultural placemaking
Capacity and resilience in place. A levelling up of capacity for culture within place, targeting regional inequalities and enabling local authorities to develop and deliver meaningful place-led strategies for culture.
Leadership and power. A power shift towards place-led approaches that enable a greater diversity of communities, cultural providers and practitioners to shape local decision making.
Funding. A coherent and transparent approach to funding culture in a place that supports the delivery of place-led strategies and addresses the immediate financial fragility of the sector triggered by the pandemic and cost of living crisis.
Evidence. A coordinated approach to developing an effective evidence base for culture and place in order to measure value and shape future investment.
“The findings of the commission and the case studies alongside it show that councils have quietly been working with their cultural partners to deliver brilliant work against every outcome you can imagine – economic growth, boosting wellbeing, improving pride in place, and supporting the talent and skills of the next generation,” said Gerald Vernon-Jackson, chair of the Local Government Association’s culture, tourism and sport board.
“This isn’t exploratory work but a proven way of ensuring our country will thrive economically and be a great place to live in the future. What will need to change, as shown in this report, is the way in which we collaborate to do it – no single organisation now has the funding, staff time or skills to do this alone. So councils, cultural organisations, and our partners in central government will need to keep working together to support each place to be the most vibrant, best place it can possibly be.”
At an event to launch the report, panel members agreed that a nationwide strategy for culture was necessary, as long as it took into account local differences and community participation in decision-making.
However Vernon-Jackson said councils needed “long-term consistent core funding” rather than short-term fixes such as a new cost-of-living recovery fund, which he said would be an “enormously inefficient” way to support local culture.
Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association, said: “The pandemic and now the cost-of-living crisis have shown that we need culture in times of crisis, and we need it on our doorsteps, close to where we live and work. Local authority funding is a critical building block for many museums – and this report makes an important case for a continuation of that funding.
“Our members are telling us about recruitment freezes and redundancy threats and in some cases even threats of closures of local museums. We are facing a difficult few years ahead and the report makes a strong case for investment in local cultural infrastructure and for the difference that funding can make to people’s lives.
"The Museums Association supports the recommendations and urges local authorities and other funders to take them on board.”
Only local government has the vital planning role that can shape and harness our city’s culture
Local authorities are one of the few local entities to have a direct mandate from the public and an undeniable local accountability. They are a key public stakeholder for civic institutions like Birmingham Museums Trust. This is not necessarily true for local landlords, businesses, BIDs, etc who usually represent the interests of private capital. Nor special interest groups who can offer only a partial perspective from specific communities.
We became a trust in 2012 but still have a very close relationship with Birmingham City Council, we manage the collection and buildings on behalf of the City Council. So when something city-wide the Commonwealth Games happens it means we are automatically plugged into it. But it also means that the current yawning financial hole for Local Government is our vulnerability too.
One of the most relevant recommendations in the report for us in Birmingham is this one about promoting creative growth. Only local government has the vital city planning role that can shape and harness the city’s cultural assets over the longer-term. We’re developing plans for a new museum in Birmingham and this is dependent on the broader vision the council has for the role of culture in promoting growth in the region. The Commonwealth Games illustrated this potential really clearly.
Equally, we have to be real about the extent of challenges facing local government at the moment and continue to press for greater equity of cultural provision across the country from central government coffers. Ultimately, central government is the only voice that matters in some conversations. The legacy of the Commonwealth Games might be as much the result of investment and policy by national and international agencies as much as local government.
Sara Wajid, co-CEO, Birmingham Museums Trust