Ten of Northern Ireland’s eleven councils can apply for up to £150k if they commit to the same amount in additional expenditure on culture.

Photo of Seamus Heaney HomePlace
Seamus Heaney HomePlace

Local authorities in Northern Ireland are being offered match funding worth up to £150k to boost their arts and cultural programming.

The Local Government Challenge Fund for 2016-17 has been set up with Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) Lottery funding. To be eligible to apply, councils must pledge new and additional money of their own to support the arts in their areas.

The Challenge Fund, which is worth a total of £1.5m, aims to increase access to the arts and is designed to support activity that contributes to councils’ Community Planning objectives.

Ten of Northern Ireland’s ‘Supercouncils’ qualify for the funding, underlining ACNI’s commitment to grass roots arts outside the big urban centres. A separate agreement is in place with Belfast City Council, which is largest urban regional council and where most major arts organisations, including those with a region-wide remit, are based.

One of the first councils to benefit from the match funding is Mid Ulster District Council, where the Seamus Heaney HomePlace will open in Bellaghy later this month.

At the launch of the Challenge Fund was Paul Givan MLA, Minister for the Department for Communities, who has taken on responsibility for the arts since the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure was abolished in the wake of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May. He said: “The arts are part of the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland but geography can be a barrier to participation in the arts.”

He continued: “The Challenge Fund is an excellent example of how two strands of government working within the Department for Communities can partner their shared ambitions and together, make public investment achieve more for people across Northern Ireland, it’s a progressive approach to adopt across government.”

Bob Collins, Chair of ACNI, said: “The Challenge Fund will embed arts policy and programming in the development of Community Plans and their emerging themes, including economic regeneration, community relations, social cohesion, tourism and the health and wellbeing of citizens… I hope the Councils will take up the Arts Council’s Challenge Fund offer – if you’re in, we’re in”.

He added that he hoped that the Challenge Fund would encourage central government to come on board as a third match-funding partner in the future.

A UK first

Local authority funding around the rest of the UK is handled in different ways, although none of the arts councils operates a ring-fenced match-funding scheme.

At Arts Council England (ACE) and the Arts Council of Wales, local authority funding applications are considered in the same way as other applicants, although in Wales the match-funding level expected from councils is slightly higher if they apply as a single authority rather than in a consortium.

ACE also works in partnership with the Local Government Association. A number of local authorities, including Bournemouth Borough Council, Bristol City Council, Durham County Council and Penzance Town Council, are among its National Portfolio Organisations.

Creative Scotland has to date awarded £2.7m through its Place Partnership programme, which supports local authorities and the creative community to work together to strengthen creative development in their area. Each year a small number of local authorities are invited to submit proposals, for which they must demonstrate how they would match Creative Scotland’s contribution.

Falling funding

The continuing loss of local authority funding for the arts was described last week by ACE Chief Executive Darren Henley as “the most immediate concern to the sector”.

He said: “This has been a tough era for public finances – and we don’t yet know what the Autumn Statement may bring. The Arts Council does understand the tough decisions faced by local authorities. But we urge them, before they reduce investment, to talk to us. We cannot fill the gaps: our resources are finite. But we have shown consistently that where there is a will, there is a way.”