How can councillors help to position the arts, culture and heritage within their council’s priorities? Councillor Sonja Crisp of City of York Council shares her thoughts. This opinion piece forms part of the inspiring councillor leadership section of our online Culture Hub.
1) How long have you been involved with the arts and culture portfolio, and in what capacity?
I became a councillor in 2007, and from 2011 I spent four years as Executive Member for Culture, Tourism and Sport. Labour lost control of the council in 2015 so I am no longer in that role. I have long had an interest in the ability of the arts and culture to bring communities together and cross all barriers. I enjoyed the challenge of making services more accessible to people in deprived areas and making sure that popular services such as libraries remain affordable and accessible. I am also interested in the role of arts and culture in health and wellbeing and in making people feel good about their surroundings.
2) What are the main challenges that your council is currently facing?
There are financial pressures of course – the cultural budgets have not been severely cut this time, but they have been in previous years. I had to fight desperately not to lose a high percentage of funding. At the moment there is not such a huge pressure in the sense that many of our arts and culture services, including libraries, are now independent of the council or outsourced.
3) How does your council plan to ensure that it continues to deliver an effective culture service in the next few years?
As the Executive Member, I was faced with budget cuts and was aware that many of the buildings were costing a lot of money to maintain and keep. We had the potential situation of closing seven libraries. I didn’t want libraries to be run solely by volunteers and felt strongly that each should have at least one professional. So we batted ideas around. The opportunity arose for some government funding to investigate the idea of a mutual delivery model run by staff and residents. We have never looked back. ‘Explore’ [Explore York Libraries and Archives Mutual Limited] was set up in 2014 and was given a five-year contract to supply library services to the council. It has a board of ‘doers’ but we agreed that nobody from the council should be on the board – this enabled true independence.
4) Why is it important for councils to continue to invest in arts and culture services?
I really feel that we have to stop this reliance on council funding because we simply don’t have the money anymore, but we don’t want to cut services. I find the best way is to be straight with people and ask what they can do for us. We will need to look more towards Arts Council England and ensure that the government understands the health and wellbeing aspects of arts, culture and sport.
5) What do you see as the future for council-funded arts and culture services?
Good cultural services can get geared up to being sustainable over time. Councils should look towards best practice and shouldn’t be afraid to ask others for help and advice. Most are happy to help others, whatever their party political leadership is. As local authorities we need to help each other through these challenging times.
This opinion piece has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England.