The COVID-19 pandemic sent shockwaves through our communities and the organisations that serve them. As we build back and adapt to new challenges including the growing cost of living crisis, we have an opportunity to review the current cultural landscape and work in national unity to establish an inclusive vision that embraces and celebrates the diversity of our local cultural offer.
Councils are the largest public funders of culture and are largely unconstrained by national regulations and requirements, unlike many other council services. Virtually no other service area allows councils to demonstrate leadership of place like cultural services. This gives them considerable agency and scope to work with cultural partners and residents to shape a local offer that truly meets local need and aspirations.
At a national level, the increasing assertiveness and influence of DCMS is winning increased attention and investment for the sector. We welcome and congratulate them on this. The Government’s commitment to the Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) provided a lifeline to many cultural organisations and services up and down the country and showed a recognition of the value culture plays in our society again.
Equally, the very significant recognition of the value of culture and heritage in the Levelling Up Fund and UK Shared Prosperity Fund represents a significant step forward in Government’s understanding and articulation of the value of culture to communities in every aspect – economic growth, personal development, sense of community, pride in place, and health and wellbeing. Alongside this, the work to develop the Heritage Capital Framework is addressing a long-standing weakness of the sector in evidencing its value in a way that can be understood by public and private investors.
Culture has long been a devolved responsibility, which is why there has been a flourishing of innovation and creativity at local level underpinned by the recognition of councils fortheir core role in fostering high quality places to live and work. However, the full aspirations of local areas will not be realised without the further devolution of critically related issues like skills funding and some aspects of fiscal devolution to ensure that councils have the appropriate resources to commit to their work.
Competitive bidding creates significant costs for councils that are forced to use scarce resource to bid for much needed money: the average cost to councils in pursuing a competitive grant was in the region of £30,000. On this basis, it would cost each council roughly £2.25 million a year chasing down various pots of money distributed from the centre. Government recognised in its Levelling Up White Paper that funding mechanisms should be streamlined further, and this will be a major step forward in ensuring funding available is spent on delivery and improved outcomes rather than bidding processes.
If the ecosystem that makes up our local cultural life is to weather the next storm - be that from economic, health or any other source - then we will all need to work together to make sure national and local investments in culture deliver the maximum bang for their buck.
Under the levelling up agenda, national and local government are aligned in their ambition to see local economic growth and increased levels of community wellbeing through access to culture. We must work together to ensure funding continues to flow to the sector, including from aligned areas such as economic growth, skills and health.
Our work on the Commission has revealed four areas of ambition for culture, which all places should consider as they strive to deliver the best for their communities, and economies. These areas are underpinned by four equally important cornerstones of cultural placemaking, which will allow these ambitions to be delivered.
Local cultural infrastructure within a place is essential to ensuring the widest engagement with culture, supporting community wellbeing and productivity, underpinning local economies and contributing to civic pride. This infrastructure is currently experiencing significant challenge as a result of rising costs, with the the LGA highlighting the significant issues facing council services.
We are calling for local government, regional bodies, cultural arms-length bodies and national government to work together with cultural organisations and communities to take immediate action to safeguard the future of local cultural infrastructure in the context of rising costs, followed by a longer-term action plan to deliver the following outcomes:
- Access and inclusion. Locally accessible and inclusive cultural infrastructure for all, addressing the structural inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic.
- Creative growth. Removal of barriers to growth of creative industry clusters and micro-clusters to support the development of the creative sector as an engine of post-pandemic growth.
- Cultural education and pathways to creative employment. Access for all in all places to a high-quality cultural education and routes into the burgeoning creative industries from schools through to Further and Higher Education and employment.
- Health and wellbeing. A strategic approach to health and wellbeing in place that recognises the preventative and health benefits of culture in supporting our national recovery.
To do this, local areas will need:
- Capacity and resilience in place. A levelling up of capacity for culture within place, targeting regional inequalities and enabling councils to develop and deliver meaningful place-led strategies for culture.
- Leadership and power. A power shift towards place-led approaches that enable a greater diversity of communities, cultural providers and practitioners to shape local decision making.
- Funding. A coherent and transparent approach to funding culture in a place that supports the delivery of place-led strategies and addresses the immediate financial fragility of the sector triggered by the pandemic and cost of living crisis.
- Evidence. A coordinated approach to developing an effective evidence base for culture and place in order to measure value and shape future investment.
In this section we set out specific detailed recommendations, addressing the actions councils, arms-length bodies and national government can take to support each of the four ambitions and four cornerstones of cultural placemaking.
These recommendations should form the basis of an action plan.
1. Access and inclusion
Locally accessible and inclusive cultural infrastructure for all, addressing the structural inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic.
The Commission heard that a wide range of financial, geographical, physical, digital and structural barriers to access (fully explored in Section Three ) are limiting the cultural sector’s diversity and potential.
Access for all means addressing some of the structural inequalities preventing access within an area. This may differ from place to place. Find recommendations for:
2: Creative growth
Removal of barriers to growth of creative industry clusters and micro-clusters programmes to support the development of the creative sector as an engine of post-pandemic growth. Find recommendations for:
3: Creative learning and pathways to creative employment
Access for all in all places to a high-quality cultural education and routes into the burgeoning creative industries from schools through to Further and Higher Education and employment.
The low levels of social mobility in the UK can be seen throughout our society, in our regions, our schools and places of work, in our cultural pursuits and in our homes. These issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic and subsequent cost of living crisis.
Creative skills can play an important role in supporting social mobility. However, it is important to recognise that the benefits of creative and cultural education and access to cultural participation on social mobility go beyond providing pathways to jobs in cultural organisations and the creative industries. The role of culture in social mobility is about more than just fairer access to creative careers; it is also about creating fair access to civic and cultural life and all the benefits that brings, whether or not a person goes on to earn a living in the cultural and creative industries. Find recommendations for:
4: Health and wellbeing
A strategic approach to health and wellbeing in place that recognises the preventative and health benefits of culture in supporting our national recovery.
The Commission heard that a strong local cultural ecosytem can play an important role in supporting the health and wellbeing of communities. Cultural programmes have been shown to have specific benefits in clinical treatment of conditions such as dementia and depression; cultural activities targeted towards at risk groups are also valuable in supporting a preventative approach to mental ill health and loneliness; and more broadly, good cultural infrastructure and universal provision of cultural services at a population level has been shown to be beneficial to community wellbeing, promoting networked resilient communities. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing’s report Creative Health and the associated work of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance remains a valuable source of research and evaluation on this topic as the evidence-base continues to grow.
During the pandemic, local cultural services and organisations played a vital role in supporting communities in lockdown, while travel restrictions fostered a greater appreciation of the cultural infrastructure of neighbourhoods including parks and green spaces and the historic environment. At the time, this supported a better public understanding of the environmental determinants of health. Differences in provision, reflecting the wider inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic also became more apparent.
The development of Integrated Care Systems may represent an opportunity to build culture and creativity into future plans for health and social care. Find recommendations for:
The four cornerstones of placemaking
To deliver against this vision, the Commission found that there are four cornerstones of cultural placemaking that need to be developed. They are: capacity and resilience; leadership and power; funding; and evidence.
5: Capacity and resilience in place
A levelling up of capacity for culture within place, targeting regional inequalities and enabling councils to develop and deliver meaningful place-led strategies for culture.
Cultural infrastructure, both in terms of physical and human capital is extremely varied from one geographical region to another. The Commission heard that having cultural infrastructure in a place was an important building block for giving people (and particularly younger people) better access to culture and also to establishing a basic public infrastructure that would allow communities to engage in local decision making.
Lead officers for culture within councils play a vital role in supporting and developing the cultural offer within place. Some councils have been successful in retaining and developing their cultural capacity, in some cases placing culture at the heart of a wider vision for their place, but there are significant regional disparities. Council funding for culture reduced by over 40 percent in the ten years from 2009/10 in response to wider funding pressures.
There is significant regional variation in both council and cultural sector capacity to develop and deliver a strategic place-led vision for culture as many of the regional structures that facilitated networks and cross council learning are no longer in place. Lead officers for culture have shown themselves to be skilled, experienced and resourceful in adapting to change but would benefit from additional sector-led support to help build capacity.
This set of recommendations is designed to provide a framework for capacity building and investment that recognises that the council plays an important role within a place, but that capacity also needs to exist outside the local authority. Find recommendations for:
6. Leadership and power
A power shift towards place-led approaches that enable a greater diversity of communities, cultural providers and practitioners to shape local decision making.
Councils can set the context for a culturally thriving local area by their elected commissioners and lead officers publicly championing the importance of culture. As with capacity however, there is a recognition that cultural leadership also needs to be developed outside the council: in the community and voluntary sector, in cultural organisations and in the creative industries. Leadership and advocacy for culture also needs to come from other parts of the public sector, such as health and education and local strategic cultural partnerships can provide a vehicle to build a shared understanding of culture and place.
The Commission found that collaboration and coproduction with communities is essential in building an inclusive vision for place. Policy making has traditionally been top-down, with decisions taken at the centre filtering down to a local level. To really ‘level up’ places we need local strategies to be set at a local level in partnership with the public, private and voluntary sectors and crucially with communities. This chimed with evidence presented to the LGA’s Levelling Up Locally Inquiry, in which Professor Joy Warmington spoke about a shift required in the role of leaders, noting the growing recognition of the need to recognise the lens they are seeing the world through and have the knowledge of themselves as a leader so trust and empathy can be built.
As outlined in the section of the report dealing with barriers, there are still issues of representation and diversity in the cultural sector. Through its leadership, the council can play an important role in addressing these challenges. Find recommendations for:
A coherent and transparent approach to funding culture in a place that supports the delivery of place-led strategies and addresses the immediate financial fragility of the sector triggered by the pandemic and cost of living crisis.
Core council funding for culture declined by over 40 percent over the ten years leading up to the pandemic as a result of wider cost pressures and changes to council funding structures. Consequently, local cultural leaders have become more reliant on piecing together short-term project-based funding to deliver long-term strategies. Funding opportunities can be difficult to navigate, particularly for those areas already experiencing low levels of capacity.
Central government funding pots such as the Levelling Up Fund are numerous and are typically competitive, capital focused and fragmented at a place level. Culture will benefit from longer-term, less competitive and more collaborative funding and investment - and more revenue funding opportunities.
On top of the longer-term structural funding issues, the experience of the pandemic, followed by the rapidly rising cost of living has a significant and immediate impact on cultural services and organisations, and places our national cultural infrastructure at risk. Without a coordinated emergency response we risk losing many of the local cultural assets and networks that make our places unique. Find recommendations for:
A coordinated approach to developing an effective evidence base for culture and place in order to measure value and shape future investment.
Data and evidence arose as a consistent theme throughout the course of the Commission, in particular in relation to three key areas of work:
1. Challenges in collecting standard core data on cultural services and organisations that would allow for effective benchmarking
2. Access to consistent methods of evaluating the impact of cultural activity on communities
3. Access to methods of measuring the impact of their own interventions for the purpose of better targeting their investment. Often the challenge is not just access to data but the analysis, interpretation and understanding of that data to guide decision making.
The best place-led cultural strategies are informed by evidence and have the approach to collecting data and evaluating their success established from the start, but it is acknowledged that in many areas of the country capacity to deliver this is limited and there is the potential for significant duplication of effort.
The Commission heard evidence that partnerships between universities, councils and cultural organisations can be powerful in building evidence-based approaches to investment in culture and that there was further potential to develop these collaborations. There is also an important role for investment by the UKRI’s research councils, for example the Creative Industries Clusters Programme led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and funded through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, and the developing UKRI/AHRC Creative Communities programme. Find recommendations for: