WEB EXCLUSIVE: While the arts community considers its response to the fine print of the Comprehensive Spending Review, Neil Darwin, Director of Regional Cities East, proposes setting aside local projects and dissolving local authority boundaries in favour of more substantive partnership investments at a sub-regional level
Undoubtedly the cuts are huge. Free museum entry survives, but Arts Council England’s (ACE) budget has been cut by 30%, with half passed on to front line delivery. Administrative costs at DCMS must come down by 41% and 19 public bodies in the sector will be abolished or reformed. No wonder ACE has warned of a “significant impact on the cultural life of the country”.
The benefits of a thriving cultural sector must somehow be retained. The Chancellor reflected in the Spending Review announcement: “Arts, heritage and sport all have enormous value in their own right. But our rich and varied cultural life is also one of our country’s greatest economic assets.” This spoon full of sugar with the medicine of cuts is only part of the story. Arts and culture can help meet some of the most pressing challenges facing society today.
A new report from Regional Cities East (‘Bigger Thinking for Smaller Cities: How arts and culture can tackle economic, social and democratic engagement challenges in smaller cities’) identifies three major tests facing policy makers. First is the need to return the economy to sustainable growth. Second is the need to sustain and improve community cohesion at a time of rapid demographic change. And third is the need to help citizens to play an active role in their communities, despite mounting public scepticism towards institutions. Arts and culture are helping to tackle these challenges. But with scarce resources for the future, new ways of working are needed to sustain their contribution.
What the report suggests is that we focus resources on the small number of key assets, organisations and high impact interventions that will have greatest impact. Across the smaller cities in Regional Cities East, and smaller cities beyond, that means looking at ‘Functional Cultural Areas’ – setting aside local authority boundaries to focus on wider areas across which real people live their lives and engage with culture. Sometimes, it means setting aside local projects in favour of more substantive partnership investments that will have an impact at a sub-regional scale. And sometimes it will mean shared cultural services departments. These measures will be difficult to sell, but we have to react to circumstances and retain the positive impact of the arts. The show must go on.