How can councillors help to position the arts, culture and heritage within their council’s priorities? Councillor Mike Hill of Kent County Council shares his 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 have been Cabinet Member for Community Services for 12 years and am a member of the South East Regional Arts Council. Arts and culture is increasingly important for a number of reasons. It has a lot to offer in supporting people to have a good quality of life, and in many ways that is even more important in financially challenging times. It has a direct effect on the other services of the county council. Most of my efforts are spent persuading Cabinet colleagues that all of our services benefit from arts and culture. For example, the Turner Contemporary has been a catalyst for the regeneration of Margate and East Kent. The health perspective is very important and here in Kent we are linking arts and culture into even the most unlikely services, such as waste disposal.
2) What are the main challenges that your council is currently facing?
Resources are a big problem across the county, but as a county council we do not deliver much directly. Our main role is as a strategic organisation, helping local councils to build a strong arts and culture sector across the county and advising them on the best sources of funding. We have seen some reduction to our budget but we are pleased that we have, by and large, protected it and the council has kept faith with the artistic sector. We distribute a small amount of money in grants to small organisations – £5,000 or £10,000 can make a lot of difference. It is really important to keep this funding of small organisations going and is a key responsibility of county councils.
3) How does your council plan to ensure that it continues to deliver an effective culture service in the next few years?
I have to make sure that we look at the core objectives for the county council and that what I am doing feeds directly into those objectives. The amount of money provided to our service is minor in comparison to the major council services and to some extent this has protected us.
4) Why is it important for councils to continue to invest in arts and culture services?
We are doing our best to measure outcomes, but measuring outcomes can be difficult as some may not be apparent for 20 years. It is difficult to measure, for example, whether our youth work stops people from going to prison or prevents suicide. We have a good performance regime and are working hard to report outcomes. We do a lot of surveys to assess the satisfaction of customers and where appropriate, the effects of our work on their health. I am optimistic that our health work and youth work is improving prospects for people, but this is difficult work to directly evidence.
5) What do you see as the future for council-funded arts and culture services?
The current crisis in public finances means we need to find new ways to fund and sustain the arts. In Kent, we are embedding arts and culture into commissioned services as an important step forward in doing this. My own personal view is that the role of arts and culture is much better understood than it was 10 years ago, and that is in part due to the efforts of organisations such as Arts Council England and the local government sector.
This opinion piece has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England.