Culture and devolution

In December 2022, the LGA published ‘Cornerstones of culture’, the final report of a year-long Commission on Culture and Local Government.

Drawing on engagement with more than 80 cultural services and organisations, and more than 50 case studies, the commission was overseen by a group of 16, led by its Chair, Baroness Lola Young. Its report explored the role publicly funded cultural services could play in helping recovery from the pandemic and how councils could support this. 

Since its publication, the context in which cultural services operate has deteriorated further, as inflation, growing demand for statutory services, and wider pressures on local government finances place strain on our national cultural infrastructure. 

Last year marked the 75th anniversary of councils investing in the arts and culture. 

Local councils still remain the biggest public funder of cultural services, but how can this continue when the LGA recently calculated that there would be a £4 billion gap in their overall funding by March 2025, just to keep all services standing still?

Although the additional £600 million announced in the final local government finance settlement for 2024/25 is welcome, the underlying problem persists. Without a long-term, sustainable funding settlement for local government, the situation is unlikely to stay the same, let alone improve.

Despite this, there are causes for optimism. Councils have never had a statutory requirement to fund culture: it is a discretionary service. 

The fact that they continue to do so regardless, demonstrates that they see its value: as a tool for economic growth; as a pillar of health and wellbeing; as a foundation of high-quality places for residents and visitors; and as a source of hope and joy for everyone in difficult times. 

We saw how resilient and creative the sector could be during the pandemic. I truly believe that, by working together, we can overcome present challenges to secure the future of our national cultural offer. 

We cannot afford to be divided. Only by working together to target our shared investment effectively can we explore every avenue for delivering and protecting these vital community services. 

This is why I am delighted that the LGA has launched a set of new think pieces on the future of local, publicly funded cultural services, exploring the role of government, arms-length funding bodies, combined authorities, and councils in establishing a supportive environment in which they can operate. See the panels for excerpts and quotes from just some of those we have published so far.

We hope this work will bring the ideas of influential thinkers to bear on the future of local, publicly funded culture and the role of the council, helping us at the LGA to build our own understanding of what might be possible – and supporting us to work with national government on behalf of our member councils and the sector. 

Culture benefits places

Devolution has already impacted culture.

Alongside local government’s ongoing support, mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) have sought to provide a strategic framework for local development. 

Prior to 2022, only two MCAs referenced culture in their devolution deals. Since then, 11 devolution deals have included culture alongside a commitment from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s arms-length bodies to work in partnership with the MCAs.

These deals reflect something long accepted across national and local government – not only that people, wherever they live, deserve to have high-quality cultural opportunities, but also that culture benefits places and communities. 

It supports regeneration and local economic growth, stronger communities and wellbeing. 

It also shows that national and local partners understand that achieving these ambitions depends on good partnership between different tiers of government…

…Amid all this possibility, however, we must not lose sight of the local tier. 

Local authorities will remain the most important strategic and delivery partner for the Arts Council for the foreseeable future. 

The health of the cultural sector relies upon the co-investment made by local government and the Arts Council into the museums, libraries and arts organisations that are the backbone of England’s cultural sector. 

Councils will remain leaders of place and are constituent bodies of MCAs. We must remember the importance of local government in our discussions about devolution. 

Place-led working

Discretionary local government services are under severe financial stress as the gap continues to widen between demand-led pressure on statutory services and councils’ capacity to meet the increasing cost.

We are in need of a national rethink about how we support and, yes, grow cultural provision as an essential component of place-led working.

The current national system is fragmented and un-strategic and fails to connect effectively to local structures.

Relationships are at the heart of success in local working.

Local cultural strategies, with the ownership and commitment of relevant local structures, should guide and manage the application of the settlement and take responsibility for monitoring and delivery of associated outcomes.

The case for cultural infrastructure

We are exploring what it means to consider cultural (and social) assets, both public and private, as infrastructure. 

The main implication of this idea is that we start to see a rich and diverse set of cultural assets, both in terms of their instrumental benefits to the prosperity and cohesion of communities, and the platform they provide, along with other kinds of infrastructure, for a healthy and functioning community…

…Adopting the framework of cultural infrastructure would represent a further step-change by a future UK government, we would suggest, towards recognising the value created by the arts and cultural provision in policy terms. 

It would help decision-makers appreciate the intrinsic importance of artistic endeavours and cultural consumption to the life and wellbeing of communities throughout the UK. 

And it would enable local and national leaders to articulate better what many intuitively understand: that culture, sport, heritage and the arts are not luxury items, or mere supplements to the services and amenities that people rely on in their daily lives. 

They are, in fact, integral parts of the social plumbing that makes communities prosper, democracies flourish, and individuals live more fulfilling and healthy lives.

Read these and other LGA culture and devolution think pieces in full.


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