Arts Council England: culture and devolution

Paul Bristow, Director, Strategic Partnerships and Place Policy at Arts Council England explores what a coherent approach to funding and governance would look like at a local, national and regional level. What mechanisms would enable this? How could this support the delivery of a legitimate local cultural strategy?

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Devolution within England has been significant.  The advent of a new tier of government – the combined authority – and new institutions like elected mayors has transformed the political and policy landscape. The pace of change could well increase in the next parliament. The Government’s Levelling Up White Paper set an aspiration for all areas of England to have the highest level of devolution should that be wanted, while Gordon Brown’s review for the opposition recommended further powers to be devolved to elected mayors and to local government.   

Devolution has already impacted culture. Alongside local government’s ongoing support, mayoral combined authorities have sought to provide a strategic framework for local development. Prior to 2022 only two MCAs (Liverpool City Region and Tees Valley) referenced culture in their devolution deals.  Since then, 11 devolution deals, including the West Midlands and Greater Manchester trailblazers, have included culture alongside a commitment from DCMS’s arms’ length bodies (ALBs) to work in partnership with the MCAs.

These deals reflect something long accepted across national and local government – not only that people, wherever they live, deserve to have high quality cultural opportunities, but also that culture benefits places and communities. It supports regeneration and local economic growth, stronger communities and wellbeing.  It also shows that national and local partners understand that achieving these ambitions depends on good partnership between different tiers of government.

How then, are we to build partnership between these tiers, and what is the proper role of an ALB like the Arts Council in this new environment? The first part of the answer is for all partners to agree on the opportunity. The Arts Council welcomes the advent of MCAs and their capacity to provide strategic leadership over meaningful geographies. They are strong leaders and partners, able to leverage their full range of powers to grow and develop the cultural sector.  MCAs have led the development of regional strategy, like Greater Manchester’s culture strategy, Grown in Greater Manchester, Known Around the World. Other MCAs have directly supported creative sector growth, such as the North of the Tyne’s Culture and Creative Investment Programme

MCAs have responsibilities that directly affect the cultural sector, and they are able to exploit these. New transport powers can improve access for audiences.  Growth in the creative industries benefits from a devolved adult skills system which can also offer opportunities to people from every background.  Mayors have both formal powers, and the leadership capacity to spot synergies between sectors, convene partners and align potential with their communities’ cultural ambitions.

For its part, the Arts Council has committed throughout its history to working with local government. Its first ever annual report in 1946 stated: “We want to collaborate with local authorities and to encourage local institutions and societies and local enterprise to take the lead.” The successors of our founder, John Maynard Keynes, know that the goals of the national cultural development agency are only ever realised in cities, towns and villages, and that their realisation requires a commitment to partner with the leaders and communities of those places.

And just as Arts Council England needs to work with partners in place to deliver its countrywide aims, so local government benefits from the skills and attributes of a national Arts Council: sector expertise; the ability to invest at scale; national and international brokerage; and applying national oversight to coherent investment in a sector. Collaborating to shape cultural strategy also enables connection to other national strategies, for instance culture’s place in the broader creative industries, and its relationship to economic policy and sector strategy such as the Creative Industries Sector Vision.  The Arts Council can speak to government and others about sectoral need and opportunity. 

The power of local and national alignment is critical. Local government and the Arts Council mutually recognise the value of their partnership. The LGA and the Arts Council have agreed a Shared Statement of Purpose which sets out the differing but complementary contributions that each bring to the health of the cultural sector. The task ahead is to adapt that partnership within the new context being shaped by devolution.  How can we re-wire the system so that the national, the regional and the local work in partnership to deliver better outcomes in more places? 

Some good pointers come from the most recent devolution deals. Starting with the trailblazers, MCAs have begun developing formal partnership structures with DCMS and its ALBs.  The Arts Council welcomes these and is fully engaged in getting them off the ground. These will be a basis for MCAs and ALBs to identify where local, regional and national priorities overlap and to begin to plan collaborations to help deliver shared priorities. Of course, shared interests already exist – and as dialogue in these partnerships progresses, more synergies and opportunities will arise.    These partnerships can also be where difference and disagreement can be managed.  No doubt these arrangements will evolve over time, and learning from other policy areas will be folded in, but the fundamental principle will remain the same: local will inform national and vice versa, to mutual benefit.

There is great potential in developing strategic approaches to culture across MCA geographies. MCAs could conceive of their contribution by thinking about the range of responsibilities that they have which could benefit the cultural sector. Alongside transport and skills, support for business productivity and innovation are key determinants of growth for culture and the creative industries; their involvement in these areas means that MCAs have a wide field of possible interventions to support cultural ambition.  Likewise, culture can contribute to many MCA policy priorities. Culture’s ability to generate economic impact via tourism, regeneration, and the creative industries is the most obvious of these areas, but others are equally important. Where MCAs assume public health duties (or, as in South Yorkshire, where the mayor chairs the Integrated Care Partnership) MCA leadership can maximise the potential for culture to contribute to wellbeing.  Greater Manchester is already an exemplar with its Creative Health Strategy.

Of course, as new partnerships develop, partners will learn to work in different ways.  The Arts Council can already align its funding alongside that of local partners, and we are keen to see how working in this way with MCAs can support future collaborations where we share objectives. Our Place Partnership Fund has enabled MCAs to invest alongside us, with the West of England CA jointly funding the £3 million Culture West scheme to open the sector to more talent. We expect similar collaborations in the future.

What will point the way to a rewired system is how these developing ways of working underpin new ideas and innovation.  Mayoral leadership – such as West Yorkshire stimulating new thinking around the Northern Creative Corridor and engaging partners including the BBC and the RSA alongside the Arts Council – will be vital here. MCAs have an opportunity to try new things and engage new partners.  The scale of MCAs may make some interventions more cost effective than local delivery, as the Creative Land Trust, supported by the Mayor of London, the Arts Council and the private sector shows.

Amidst all this possibility, however, we must not lose sight of the local tier. Local authorities will remain the most important strategic and delivery partner for the Arts Council for the foreseeable future. The health of the cultural sector relies upon the co-investment made by local government and the Arts Council into the museums, libraries and arts organisations that are the backbone of England’s cultural sector. Councils will remain leaders of place and are constituent bodies of MCAs. We must remember the importance of local government in our discussions about devolution. 

Likewise, we must consider that devolution is unlikely to proceed consistently across the country. Not only does this reiterate the importance of local government in places without MCAs or devolution deals, it also reflects that even were this not the case places are different, and the relationship between the Arts Council and local partners will depend, as it does now, on local circumstance. 

Similarly, as a national agency, with a mission to widen cultural opportunity to people in all parts of England, the Arts Council has to consider the country as a whole and make its own judgements about how to use its resources in line with its sector-wide strategy. The selection, in 2021, of 54 Priority Places where there was demonstrable need to support greater cultural opportunity is an example of this.  While a national perspective underpinned this decision, however, the success of the interventions which are now underway will depend on local partnerships, ambitions and capacities. Here, as everywhere, the local and the national tier have to work together. 

Devolution represents a major opportunity. The relationship between the local, the regional and the national tiers of government is changing, and this affects the cultural sector as much as any other. The most recent devolution deals contain the seeds of a new relationship between the national and the local, and the Arts Council is fully committed to this. A strong national cultural sector is built upon our cities, towns and villages that thrive through a collaborative approach to culture. The Arts Council, MCAs and local government have a golden opportunity to work together to get this right. 

Paul Bristow

Director, Strategic Partnerships and Place Policy, Arts Council England