Councils’ culture and leisure services have never been more important and have a vital role to play in the recovery from COVID-19.
An unexpectedly positive development of the events of recent weeks has been the rapid adaptation of culture and leisure services to meet the needs of communities and the incredible flourishing of individual creativity under lockdown.
Libraries, museums, theatres and leisure centres were among the first to meet the challenge of COVID-19 by embracing digital solutions and, in so doing, have found new audiences.
Kingston Libraries have reached more than 10,000 viewers with their online Rhyme Time sessions; Barnsley Council’s Cooper Gallery has attracted visitors from as far away as Brazil to its daily digital jigsaw challenge; and leisure centres are providing hugely popular online workouts.
Cultural services staff have been central in efforts to tackle coronavirus on the frontline, demonstrating how transferable their skills really are. Library and museum teams’ experience in providing customer service and information has been invaluable in fronting community hubs. Events specialists have applied their project management skills to scrambling teams to shield vulnerable groups.
Perhaps even more profound has been the change in behaviour among the public. Quarantine has resulted in an outpouring of day-to-day creativity as people shift from being audiences to producers of cultural content.
Exercise has taken on a new significance in people’s lives, resulting in a boom in online classes and a new-found appreciation for outdoor spaces.
The massive popularity of creative, cultural and leisure activities during lockdown demonstrates the true value of these often-squeezed services. Under these most extreme of circumstances, they have been priceless in preserving people’s mental and physical wellbeing. We must not forget this lesson as we move towards recovery.
Culture and leisure services have often been underfunded as largely discretionary services. Spending on culture and related services reduced by 45 per cent in the nine years between 2009/10 and 2018/19.
Council budgets will be under even greater strain coming out of this crisis, but we would be foolish to put culture and leisure services at the front of the list for cuts. We must ensure that government also recognises this.
First, engagement in these activities really matters to residents when the chips are down. They are essential to people’s mental and physical health.
Second, councils have a crucial role to play in delivering an economic bounce-back. Before COVID-19, the creative industries were the fastest growing part of the economy, along with tourism. These businesses are integral to our recovery and part of a complex ecosystem that includes the services funded and delivered by councils. We cut these services at our peril.
Instead, we should ask ourselves how can culture and leisure deliver recovery? How can we reshape our leisure contracts to ensure public health outcomes are embedded in delivery? How can we capitalise on the way libraries have been mobilised to support the most vulnerable in society? How can investment in everyday creativity stimulate local economic growth?
Ultimately, spending on culture and leisure is not a luxury: it is a commitment to the wellbeing of our residents and the economic future of our local places.