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With many councils across the country on the verge of bankruptcy, cultural services are under threat. Councillor Liz Green, Chair of LGA’s Culture, Tourism and Sport board, says we need to do things differently.

Bristol Old Vic is one of many cultural organisations to have its local funding cut

Everyone who works in local government, and every councillor elected to determine policies, recognises the need for a vibrant, inclusive, funded and active cultural offering. We know it aids our residents' wellbeing, provides employment and attracts visitors to our towns, cities and countryside. 

We do - and will continue to do - everything we can to support the sector, but there is no getting away from the fact that things are tough right now for councils.

Local Government Association (LGA) analysis in October showed English councils face a £4bn funding gap across this year and next just to keep services standing still. While the government announced an extra £600m for councils for 2024/25, councils still face one of the most challenging budget-setting cycles in their history. 

We need to do things differently locally, and nationally.

Biggest single investor in arts

Despite this, local government remains one of the biggest single investors in arts, culture, tourism and heritage, spending over £1bn directly on cultural services including £650m annually on libraries, and £430m on museums, heritage and the arts. 

8.9m people make 165m visits to our leisure centres, which are also relied on by three quarters of all grassroots clubs. 7.6m people use our libraries, making over 40m visits, and 33% of all adults use library websites at least three or four times a year. 

These are valued and much loved, visible community services. We know if we lose them, then we store up trouble for the health and wellbeing of our residents in the future, hinder our local economies from growing, and take away a vital route to learning.

Budget round promotes risk-averse decisions

Despite some recent press coverage, no council has made 100% cuts to culture, however what we deliver is changing. Grants to community groups and local cultural organisations have seen significant reductions, and even core cultural services like libraries have reduced. 

In recent years councils have received one-year funding settlements from government. The provisional settlement is generally announced in late December and the final settlement in February, with councils required to finalise their budgets based on this information by early March ready for 1 April. 

Within this fast turnaround it can be difficult to come up with creative solutions to reduce delivery costs. But we try. 

Councils are also the only part of the public sector that legally have to set a balanced budget each year. That’s good, as it makes us financially responsible, but it also promotes risk-averse decisions – you can’t assume more money will be made available in the next year, or that your income may go up. 

24% real terms reduction 

Our ‘core spending power’ for providing services, which includes government grants, retained business rates and council tax, has seen a 24% real terms reduction from 2010/11 to 2024/25. Much of this has been absorbed behind the scenes through reductions in staff, new ways of doing things and efficiencies from automation.

Like everyone though, councils have also been affected by rising inflation and energy prices. Last year the annual cost of heating a single swimming pool went up by about £30,000 overnight, and while many libraries rightly acted as warm hubs, that came with a heating bill too. 

But it is rising demand for services like social care and temporary accommodation for those who are homeless that is driving significant pressures on council budgets. Spending on adult and children’s social care has increased to take up an average of 63.9% of budgeted spend in 2023/24 by councils with social care responsibilities. In some areas like Bradford, this is as high as 87% of their budget. 

This means that we have much less to spend on other services than we did 10 years ago. Councils increasingly have to bid for funding themselves, often on very short timescales which makes it impossible to effectively engage communities and can affect their impact.

So what does this mean for the cultural sector?

In many places, grants are being reduced or shortened where councils can no longer confidently guarantee the money would be available over several years. 

We know this causes challenges and the ‘start stop’ effect can lead to community disengagement and uncertainty for the staff and freelancers. We saw a significant exodus of freelancers from the creative sector during Covid, and we are worried that more will be forced out. This is bad for the health and diversity of the sector, but also bad for residents as it leads to reduced choices, increasing travel to those that remain and less inclusion.

But is it all doom and gloom? No. We remain the largest public investor in culture and there is money in the system – we just need to make that money go as far as it possibly can. That means using our existing assets – libraries, theatres, parks and museums – as cultural hubs for activities, extending their reach so that those with least access to culture, particularly during this cost-of-living squeeze, are still able to experience low cost or free activities. 

Councils need the support of the cultural sector

Councils like West Devon are also investing in the strategic approach; working with partners to strengthen and enhance the local cultural offer, attracting domestic and even international visitors. These strategies will enhance the area’s ability to attract funding from grant makers and investors, and hopefully provide greater security for cultural workers in the area.

From the sector, we need recognition of the funding pressure that councils are facing, and your support in lobbying government for the changes we need to stabilise our funding situation. But we also need your creativity and outside perspective on how we can do things differently. Not just in our cultural services, but in what can be done to help people remain more independent and reduce their need for social care, to support struggling families and provide positive experiences for those out of work. 

Together, we can continue to find ways forward that support our communities and our creative teams through this time of challenge. 

Councillor Liz Green is Chair of LGA’s Culture, Tourism and Sport board.
@LGAcomms | @LGAculturesport | @CllrLizGreen

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