Cultural activity brings a host of benefits but takes time and money.
Has there ever been a more important time for councils to think about the local role of culture and heritage?
We know engagement in cultural activity brings with it a host of benefits, from its impact on educational outcomes, mental and physical health and social inclusion, to the way in which high-quality facilities boost economies, attract visitors, develop workforce skills and support regeneration.
We also know that investing in this activity takes time and money. At a time of increasing financial pressure and rising demand, we need to think more carefully about the role of cultural investment and how it shapes local identity and economic futures.
Local government is one of the biggest single investors in arts, culture, tourism and heritage. As a sector, we spend more than £1 billion directly on culture and heritage, with roughly £650 million annually on libraries, and approximately £430 million on museums, heritage and the arts.
But that funding is under pressure. Our spending on culture and related services fell in real terms by 45 per cent in the nine years between 2009/10 and 2018/19. For every pound spent on culture and heritage in 2009/10, 61p was spent in 2018/19; for library services, the figure was 58p.
Cuts to wider council services also have a knock-on effect on culture and heritage. Planning departments have faced major budget reductions over the last nine years, and Historic England has highlighted some of the real challenges faced by the sector as a result of lost expertise in historic buildings.
“Local government is one of the biggest single investors in arts, culture, tourism and heritage”
The Government has to some extent recognised the scale of the challenge. In October 2019, it announced £250 million to be spent on cultural infrastructure, including £90 million for the Cultural Development Fund and £125 million for regional libraries and museums.
Its £700,000 heritage preservation campaign builds on earlier announcements of new high street heritage action zones and recognises the way in which preserving heritage sites can contribute to local economic priorities.
Long term, councils need a sustainable way of securing resources to invest in heritage. The LGA is arguing for a national conversation about a local tourism levy, and this call featured in our response to December’s Queen’s Speech.
Meanwhile, councils continue their work with communities and developers to explore the unique identity of their places – helping shape their future, promote community cohesion and encourage economic growth.
Some of this work will be featured at the LGA’s annual culture and tourism conference in March. For example, North Somerset Council will be discussing how heritage can underpin place-making. Its adoption of Weston-super-Mare as a conservation area, and of a shopfront design guide, supported by a shopfront enhancement grant scheme, has helped the town secure a £1.2 million high street heritage action zone to fund works over four years.
I am delighted to host the conference in my home town of Portsmouth, where we can illustrate the opportunities associated with heritage investment through some exciting projects, including the regeneration of Portsmouth Naval Dockyard, which has been brought back into cultural and economic use.
It is more important than ever that leaders in the sector are able to come together to share best practice and inspire one another. We look forward to welcoming you to the conversation in Portsmouth next month.