Like “furlough” and “lockdown”, “levelling up” is a term we have had to become familiar with recently. But what does it actually mean and how will it impact the culture sector?
The Levelling Up the United Kingdom white paper the government published earlier this year does mention culture, promising greater access to it along with a stronger pride in place. Slightly bizarrely, the document then goes on to describe how the Renaissance that flourished in Italian city states from the 14th century onwards could be a possible path for the UK to follow.
It is difficult to tell quite what this means in practice for culture, although museums did have their own renaissance in the early 2000s with the launch of an initiative to address concerns over the future of regional museums in England. The Renaissance in the Regions programme saw the government acknowledge that the welfare of non-national museums was partly a national responsibility. It backed this up with funding and the programme was seen as a success by many. But it was gradually abandoned after Labour lost the 2010 election and did not lead to the national museums strategy that many had hoped for.
Whether today’s levelling-up agenda can deliver anything as impactful is doubtful. Despite it being the “moral, social and economic programme for the whole of government”, there seems to be little new money, although all the funding uplift given to Arts Council England in the 2021 spending review will be distributed outside the capital. But it is also a question of genuinely devolving power to the regions, with too many key decisions still made in London. Quite what it means for culture across the UK is even harder to unpick.
Political slogans often hide complexities, and levelling up is no different. London is far and away the wealthiest city in the country, but the problem is that not all Londoners are able to share in this wealth. It is the same with culture – there might be amazing cultural opportunities available in the capital, but if you are part of a community that is unable to access them, this is largely irrelevant.
Such issues mean that for levelling up to lead to a cultural renaissance that benefits everyone, it will need to become far more than an empty political slogan (see p13).
Simon Stephens is the editor of Museums Journal
The Museums Association has submitted a response to the DCMS Select Committee inquiry on Reimagining Where We Live: Cultural Placemaking and the Levelling Up Agenda