Local authorities in the UK’s largest cities are calling for a fairer share of government arts funding and devolution of cultural budgets to regional cultural capitals, warning that they will be concentrating their own resources on statutory services.

Photo of Manchester city
Manchester, one of eight of England's Core Cities

tecmark.co.uk (CC BY 2.0)

Current levels of council funding for cultural infrastructure in England’s largest regional cities are no longer sustainable in the face of rising pressure on all services, according to the Core Cities group, which represents the UK's largest cities outside London. Cllr Phil Bale, Core Cities UK Cabinet Member for Culture and leader of Cardiff City Council, told AP: “Historically, it was local authorities in Core Cities who supported arts institutions and groups through a traditional funding model. But… this will change in an age of austerity when we will have to concentrate our resources on statutory services… We believe the funding situation is becoming critical.”

The Core Cities group is coordinated by the local authorities in Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield, with Cardiff and Glasgow operating under devolved arrangements for culture in Scotland and Wales. The eight English cities jointly generate 27% of England’s economy – more than London. Whilst they acknowledge the importance of London as the national cultural capital and recognise the value of the cultural economy in making London an attractive place to live, visit and invest, the councils argue that the continued success of the regional cities and their surrounding economies is vital to balanced growth in the wider economy. Decisions on government spending must, they say, take into account not only the contribution of the culture and creative sector to economic growth, but also its wider role in strengthening economic competitiveness by attracting visitors and investors as well as providing broader skills development.

The group has drawn up a formal response to the recent Select Committee report on the work of Arts Council England (ACE), calling on the Government to tackle the issue of its disproportionately lower funding to the regions. They see it as crucial that ACE acts immediately on the Select Committee’s recommendation that future lottery spend for London be limited to its per capita share, describing it as “disappointing” that ACE has recently determined its National Portfolio funding agreements for the period 2015-18 “without adequately addressing this issue”.

Demanding greater recognition of their special status as regional cultural capitals, they are proposing a wider role for themselves in shaping national cultural strategy, including devolved funds for the delivery of a series of city cultural strategies approved directly by the DCMS. They suggest that devolving cultural budgets (including, potentially, national lottery funding) to a city or city-region level would create the opportunity to develop “new models for supporting the sector, potentially matching funding against bids to European sources”.

The Select Committee report insists that ACE should take “a far more robust stance” than it already does with local authorities who show little inclination to support the arts, saying: “There is little point in pumping public money into areas that do not particularly want or need it, or do little themselves to support the arts.” But the Core Cities group vigorously defends its record on culture: “While some individual local authorities may not value or contribute significantly to the sector, the Core Cities spend on culture includes directly run services (libraries, museums, concert halls, galleries and theatres) as well as grant funding to arts organisations (many in partnership with ACE) and arts development services. These services have large budgets, running to millions of pounds, and in many cases have been prioritised for support, including the development of new and world class facilities such as the Library of Birmingham, Home Manchester and Bristol’s M Shed.”

Select Committee members have declared themselves “staggered” to learn that conversations between Culture Minister Ed Vaizey and local authorities “are not commonplace, if they take place at all” and the Core Cities group confirms that “there is little contact between the Core Cities and ministerial teams at the DCMS”. They support the Committee’s call for “an improved and mature relationship” which would offer space to discuss “the pressing challenge of sustaining such provision in the face of budget cuts which threaten all but the basic provision of statutory services in future”. Any such discussion should, they say, bring “cultural planning closer to those who fully understand local needs”.

Liz Hill