The UK is among the most centralised and unequal countries, which has a profound impact on where culture and creativity has flourished. Trevor MacFarlane explores whether devolution could be an opportunity to recalibrate the creative ecosystem.
The UK seems to be gripped by devolution fever. But as Peggy Lee once said: “Fever ain’t a new thing: fever started long ago.”
Back in 1997, new Labour won a landslide election on a promise to implement the most comprehensive constitutional reforms of the 20th century. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were handed unprecedented new powers across a wide range of policy areas.
Antiquated privileges for hereditary peers in the House of Lords were abolished. New national arts councils flourished across the four nations. Funding for the arts and culture in England doubled in ten years.
Since then, successive UK governments have placed devolution at the heart of their policy offer to the country. The 2010 Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition resurrected ‘localism’ to include the voices of local people in neighbourhood planning.
In 2014, the then Chancellor, George Osborne secured the first ‘handshake’ deal, establishing the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. In under a decade, 14 areas across England had established a ‘devo-deal’ with Whitehall. According to the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, 41% of the UK population now lives in an area with a devolution deal.
Inequality both between and within regions
In 2022, the UK Government’s Levelling Up white paper landed on desks with a thud. Setting aside a few disorientating throwbacks to Renaissance Florence, the 297-page document is a comprehensive articulation of the regional disparities that hold the UK back.
From employment rates, weekly earnings, productivity, educational attainment and health and wellbeing, the inequalities between regions and nations of the UK are nothing less than scandalous. And in our own sector, an uneven distribution of creative businesses, skills, funding for culture, research & development and inward investment sees too many areas missing out on the positive economic and social spill-overs that we know we can bring to local communities.
But it’s not just inequalities between regions that should concern us. Inequity expresses itself even more flagrantly within regions, which presents a much knottier policy challenge to tackle. Take Greater Manchester where I was born, grew up and carved out a career as a fledgling, working-class theatre director. The city region is home to some of the more affluent communities and dynamic cultural institutions anywhere in the world; but it is also home to communities that experience chronic levels of multiple deprivation and where the culture and creativity flourishing there isn’t supported by institutions.
This same pattern is broadly replicated across the UK - including in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and in our other core cities too. Many towns, villages and rural communities outside urban centres are also feeling ‘left behind’ by cultural policies designed for areas that already have established cultural infrastructures.
Building confidence and making devolution work
The net result? A gross social injustice for people from minoritised communities of all kinds, whether in inner-cities or the Outer Hebrides, finding it disproportionately difficult to get in, and get on, in the creative economy. While creativity and talent is everywhere, the opportunity to express it is not.
Two new ‘trailblazer’ devolution deals struck by Greater Manchester and the West Midlands with the government could be an opportunity to start rewiring our creative ecosystem. The deals beef up both combined authorities with significant new decision-making powers and a consolidated chunk of cash. The Metro Mayors that run the city regions will have new powers over transport, skills and housing and budgets of about £1 billion per year to play with.
Just knowing what’s coming into their regional coffers over a longer period of time could open up opportunities for more strategic investments in key growth areas, including the creative industries, as well as support areas that have been historically underserved in terms of cultural investment.
While creativity and talent is everywhere, the opportunity to express it is not.
Importantly, ‘culture and tourism’ already feature alongside ‘skills’ and ‘business support’ in both deals - policy areas we know are critical to cultivating a healthy creative and cultural ecosystem. While the wording around culture is quite brief, the culture teams in both combined authorities are working hard to put flesh on the bones now the principles have been established.
Speaking to people behind the scenes in the negotiations, officers have clearly played a blinder, establishing themselves as key cultural brokers across their city regions without overburdening local infrastructures too fast – critical to building confidence and making cultural devolution work.
Both major parties pay lip service to cultural devolution
At a gathering of political and civic leaders at the Convention of the North earlier this year, both Labour and the Conservatives made commitments to widening and deepening devolution, explicitly citing culture as part of the mix.
While the two largest UK parties have said they want to devolve cultural policy and put the creative industries at the heart of their growth agendas, neither has yet presented concrete proposals or financial commitments that substantiate those ambitions.
From Labour, we’ve had talk of a ‘Creative Compact’ and an in-principle backing for a ‘northern culture corridor’. Gordon Brown’s latest paper on devolution flirted with a new constitution: a ‘right to culture’ could be enshrined within it.
On the Conservative end, the recently announced ‘Investment Zones’ have got creative industries leaders and universities excited about the potential to grow creative clusters within them.
Open policy development programme
Without more to go on, considerable questions about the future of cultural devolution are left hanging in the air. What are the new powers over cultural policy that local areas might get? What role will national arm’s length bodies play? How will any new funding mechanisms benefit areas with limited cultural infrastructure?
How can local people have a say in decision making closer to home? How will freelancers factor? What role will existing creative clusters play? How will the UK sustain its competitive offer in international markets while simultaneously devolving more powers over industrial policy to local places?
These are just a few of the questions we’re being asked by creative and cultural sector leaders and local government representatives. Now is the time to begin exploring them in a more open and systematic way.
Over the next 18 months, Culture Commons will be building an open policy development programme on ‘the future of cultural devolution’. We’ll be crowdsourcing questions from different tiers of local government and thinking about national policy principles that might support a new, more devolved, cultural policy landscape in the UK. We invite you to join us in that endeavour.