Elizabeth Crump & Clare Thurman
This paper serves as a background to the conversation What Next? colleagues held in January about Local Authorities. We know that it is not a complete briefing and that there are many areas that are only touched-on in this paper.
We have compiled this paper after holding conversations with members of our Leadership Group, our wider movement, supporting organisations, and lots of the funders and support organisations mentioned in the paper – thanks so much to everyone for their thoughtful and generous expertise.
The current picture in England
Local Government funding is in the news. We are hearing reports of several councils filing for bankruptcy, and of those removing or reducing funding for culture. These reports all cite the same drivers for this current escalation to crisis: the combined impact of inflation, wage increases, pensions, the cost-of living crisis, and the rising costs of adult social care on local authority budgets – all against a backdrop of the ten-years of austerity policy that has reduced average local authority investment in culture by more than 30%. There are further looming pressures that will add to this reality over the next few years: such as the expiration of the statutory override for special educational needs funding – which will add further millions to local authority budget lines.
Local authorities get a yearly financial settlement from central government, making it difficult for leaders to plan their investment over multiple years. In December, it was announced provisionally that there would be 6.5% increase in funding from April 2024, and this week there is announcement of a further £500million, but analysts are already saying that this will not cover the shortfall.
The Local Authority (LA) picture is complicated, with different areas using different models of governance: from County Councils to Combined Authorities. Some have elected Mayors, and some have officials leading their strategy – with party political control of a council making a difference to the approach that is taken. Devolution (transfer of decision-making powers from central to local government) gives different powers and agency to officials, sometimes making it easier to embed culture across systems and structures.
Local Authorities and arts and culture
Across the country, LA arts and culture colleagues and their partners are making arguments for investment into their communities and sector, both for the value that the arts and creative industries bring now, and the impact they will have on budgets and the economy in the future. Successful arguments for culture are often deeply particular to specific places and are tailored to the strategic priorities of that area. Culture strategies (if a council has one) can help to set out vision, direction, partnerships and funding for the arts, and can support collaborations across different departments; from skills, to planning, to health and wellbeing. Last year’s Cornerstones of Culture provides an excellent primer as to the contribution that culture makes.
At this current moment, the process of making the case for the arts is hugely difficult: arguments that pit culture spend against other departments and needs are unlikely to cut through in this crowded and urgent space, and arguments that rely on long-term economic growth are difficult to enact when all available funding is diverted to averting short-term crisis. Historic engagement matters: where culture has been valued in the past in a local area, there are often partnerships and pathways that can be used to campaign for its continued importance. The democratic dimension of this case-making is also really important, and ensuring that the work meets real community need, and is championed by the public it serves, is essential for councils maintain their commitment.
Despite all obstacles and financial realities, some of the arguments do land; there are places where exciting work and collaborations are flourishing. Committed Councillors (well briefed and supported by the sector), and skilled local authority staff can make a real difference here. There has also been some significant investment in capital and start-up over the last few years with the Levelling Up Fund supporting a large number of projects across the whole UK.
However, it is important to acknowledge clearly that sometimes there isn’t a way through in this financial climate. This is not reflective of the strength of the argument, the skill of those making it, or the quality of the work. Where Council finances are collapsing, it is not possible for colleagues to make a special case for their continued funding. Organisations, individuals, jobs and communities are all being deeply impacted by this reality. Many are in crisis. Victoria Hume of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance points out that the reduction and collapse of culture has a knock-on effect to other departments like health, with no personnel in post to facilitate wider ambitions.
Policy levers and advocacy
What can be done at national or local level to make a difference?
Given the current climate, it seems unlikely that any government will look to immediately reverse either the systemic or the current deficits in LA finances, which means that there are three possible routes to explore:
1) mitigating the current picture: helping LAs to raise more revenue for culture, reducing barriers, raising the status/profile or culture, making the strongest possible argument for any possible investment, and/or putting in stronger accountability measures for its delivery
2) investing in thinking and planning for a new model of cultural delivery; a radical future which we can use as a guide over the next ten-years
3) influencing the focus and reality of the investment and funding that is available.
To kick-start our discussion, we include here a few of the interventions that have been suggested by partners as ways to mitigate and make change to the way the culture is supported – do let us know which ones we have missed:
It seems clear, that any central government in power over the next few years will be facing the same challenges; there will be calls from all quarters for significant investment in local government against competing demands and in a time of severe constraint. Whilst there are some areas where investment is still being talked about, (for example, Eliza Easton of Erskine Analysis points out that the Creative Industries and culture are still priorities for the Department of Levelling Up and Communities, with earmarked money yet to be spent), it seems extremely unlikely that either long-term loss to LA budgets, or the shorter-term deficits are likely to be reversed.
The roles and responsibilities of arms-length bodies and philanthropists are important here, as calling on them to make up any shortfall of LA funding would mean a further blurring of the lines of government statutory responsibility, and would provide even more strain on already-overstretched budgets.
What can we practically do?
Arts Council England and the LGA both have data and information that can be used to make a case in a specific area, and there are case studies that can help support councillors and officials to become informed champions. Specialist networks like the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance and the Cultural Learning Alliance can help colleagues to make the case across departments and disciplines. Where we can, we can help each other to make the strongest possible arguments when we are called upon to do so, reducing duplication and sharing resource.
In this landscape, how we make decisions about the arts and cultural provision that we want to enable and protect, and we how we take a shared and collaborative responsibility for this process becomes even more important. In all likelihood, there will be less money in our systems in the foreseeable future, and, as a sector, it is important that we plan for that strategically, and think about equitable processes and frames for decision-making that we might lobby for or adopt. We can ask whose voices should be heard and how they can be facilitated in this space. We can ask who has power. These are questions being asked now by colleagues like Citizens in Power and the in the forthcoming Future of Local Decision Making project.
The values and systems that underpin both decision-making and advocacy really matter.
Investment into thinking about a radical future Everyone agrees that a new model is needed, but we need to be able to articulate, forensically, what this model looks like, and critically, how we will work back from it to shape the way that we are working now. This thinking needs investment and support to be done equitably and effectively.