The Icing on the Cake? Culture, Devolution and the North East

Dr Henry Kippin, CEO of North of Tyne Combined Authority, and Professor Katy Shaw, Director of Partnerships: Northumbria University, discuss the context of culture and devolution in the North East.

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The North East has always been a cultural and creative powerhouse. While the value of culture is core to the economy and growth, its value and benefit does not begin and end with the economic. The culture of the North East is a unique connection between our past, present and future. When we think of the North East of England, its the cultural landmarks of the region that loom large in our popular imagination. From the Angel of the North to the Baltic, Durham Cathedral to Spanish City, the North East has always been a cultural powerhouse. But questions about the ‘value’ of this culture and who pays for it have dominated debates in national and local government across the last ten years. Local government is the biggest investor in culture in the UK but, in the words of LGA chair of culture, tourism and sport Liz Green, our contemporary operational contexts is a ‘need to do things differently locally, and nationally’. In practice, this means an increasing ask on local government ‘to make money go as far as it possibly can’ and ‘do things differently’ by collaborating cross-sector and mobilising cultural assets in partnership with new combined authorities in England. 

The value of culture

Local Government Association (LGA) analysis in October 2023 showed that English councils face a £4 billion funding gap in 2024 and in 2025 just to maintain services standing still, following a real-terms reduction in funding of 24 per cent since 2010. This means that even maintaining the ‘hanging basket’ function of local cultural provision – a bare minimum standard much derided by Levelling Up Minister Michael Gove in 2022 – has become a challenge rather than a baseline for delivery. Pressures on spend and expectation of return have led to a renewed focus on the ‘value’ of culture in a context of cuts to spending and a turn to the new capacity of combined authorities to offer efficiency, strategy and solutions to the sector in this new landscape. 

Andy Haldane, the architect of the 2022 UK Government Levelling Up white paper recently argued that culture – from green spaces and libraries, to galleries, high streets and football clubs - are among the local assets that attract people to live and work and invest in an area. Despite this, he expressed concern that these local cultural assets are somehow seen as being the hundreds and thousands, or the icing on the cake. But we know they absolutely are the cake. We know in the most deprived parts of the UK, what matters most are those things, but we’re still underinvesting in them. We invest diddly squat in what might be called social infrastructure relative to what we invest in physical or digital infrastructure, and it’s always the first casualty of cuts by local government. (Haldane 2023)

In this context of cuts and contraction, Haldane identifies ‘one thing’ that has the potential to turn around a period of sustained under-investment and pernicious framing of culture as just hanging baskets, one thing that has ‘gone right’ since his white paper was published: ‘devolution in the North East’. 

North East Devolution

More influence over cultural strategy and spend is part of the next stage plans for tier four devolution in England. Culture is an important lever for devolution: so-called tier four ‘trailblazer deals’ will empower combined authorities to onboard devolved budgets for arts, tourism and heritage. This is welcome and will also support better outcomes in other devolved areas including skills, transport, and health. Through harnessing culture and the creative industries to catalyse and connect delivery, the devolved regions of England can maximise their capacity to generate added value for their local people and places. 

Devolving powers over culture strategy and would give local decision makers more freedom and flexibility to support people into work, to attain better skills and to improve their quality of life. In this way, an effective culture strategy underpinned by devolved spending powers can support the operation of wider national programmes like the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) by maximising investment to generate inclusive innovation and participation in culture and the creative industries. Culture trailblazer deals can unlock greater influence over innovation policy and increased innovation income for R&D in culture and the creative industries. They should identify the individual strengths of regions within a combined authority and create opportunity to test what can be achieved when they come together, in cross-regional events or zones. They can also generate and activate new evidence on the manifold ways in which culture can tackle some of our most pressing issues including skills, wellbeing and civic cohesion. 

Through devolution, mayoral authorities can co-create with communities and cross sector stakeholders a new local cultural framework to enhance pride and wellbeing, develop the local visitor economy, and develop skills and investment to increase access and opportunities for local young people to live and work in the area. Harnessing the power of diversity by empowering the people of a place to tell own stories about region, past and present, the devolution of culture spend can facilitate the conditions required to cultivate conditions for creativity in the region. Through a commitment to partnership working and co-creation, a combined authority can deliver an ambitious vision for culture that connects strategy, investment, and skills to better reflect and respond to the contexts of its place and people. 

The Case for Culture

Achieving this begins with an audit the region’s cultural and creative innovation assets and sharing of learning from live culture trailblazer deals (for example West Midlands Combined Authority and Greater Manchester Combined Authority) to find fit with what works and to foster an inclusive innovation ecosystem. It means connecting with sector specialists to co-design and co-deliver a coherent vision and to convene divergent stakeholders around a skills strategy to underpin a talent pipeline for growth. It requires the alignment of funding and join up of investment to enable strategic collaboration with a re-localising of national ALBs (Arm’s Length Bodies such as Arts Council and Historic England) as well as private and philanthropic investors around areas of identified creative and cultural opportunity in the region. 

Mobilising existing partnerships and supercharging them to new a remit and reach through the re-location of national tourist organisations (such as Visit Britain) and their collaboration with existing cultural infrastructure. The devolution agreement for culture can also create an international gateway for partnership working and the promotion of the region’s cultural offer overseas. Devolving powers for culture can enable the development of vital new funding mechanisms that respond to the needs of the region and the conditions of its creative sectors. These could include pilot innovations in partnership with regional ACE cultural compacts such as memberships, onboarding regions hubs of NPOs, developing new cultural cooperatives with specific sectors, and facilitating SRI investments into targeted programming for businesses committed to using their economic power for local good. 

Creative Placemaking

The role of culture in North East devolutionary planning has been key to unlocking innovation in existing assets and relationships and building opportunity in emergent areas of growth and R&D. The region covered by the new combined authority footprint – everything from the Scottish borders, down to the bottom of County Durham - has an existing cultural identity, a vibrant ecosystem of cultural and creative industries and a series of established partnerships with national creative organisations. Enabling bodies like the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Gallery and National Theatre to ‘north-shore’ their activities, North East culture partnerships open experiences and opportunities to diverse local audiences that would otherwise remain sealed in the capital city. Mobilising these assets, the new combined authority’s connected culture strategy will be co-designed with the arts, cultural and creative industries sectors and enabling communities across the new North East combined authority footprint to speak with one voice on their place-based policy priorities. 

The anticipated benefits of cultural devolution include an increase in cultural engagement and participation across the region, a rise in numbers taking creative GCSE, A Level, degrees and adult skills courses, an increase in the in number of creative and cultural businesses registered in the region and an uptick in creative innovation investment from R&D funders. By connecting culture strategy with adult skills, devolution can enhance the capacity of the cultural and creative industry workforce – whether bred here, brought back here, or retrained here – and better connect devolved adult skills powers to HE policy. In the longer term of a 30-year funding settlement, cultural devolution has the potential to catalyse the relocation of national cultural organisations to the regions, rewarding the co-situating of ALBs and forging new partnerships with inter/national arts and culture organisations and events will reshape and better inform national investment in regional cultural priorities. In doing so, it offers a way to increase tourism and spend, and catalyse the cultural capacity of the region.

Catalysing Culture: North East Innovations

While a clear culture strategy that is supported by sustained funding can help a combined authority define long term ambitions and policy connectivity, the value of the devolution of culture is as much about pounds and pence as it is hearts and minds. Culture can enhance value in areas like skills, private inward investment, and R&D. By better connecting devolved culture strategy and spend to research, combined authorities can create the landing pads for incoming R&D budgets and ensure that evidence-based evaluation and locally informed, inclusive innovation sit at the heart of devolved planning and place making. Additional mechanisms for culture delivery made possible by devolution of culture include initiatives like crowd funding for small to medium sized projects, and the establishment of cultural matching funds that better align local actors in the business community with cultural opportunities to improve transparency and networks. 

We can already see examples of this across the North East combined authority through the Cultural and Creative Zones in Newcastle, North Shields and Berwick that function as cultural anchors across the region, drawing investment through supporting strategic partnerships between global creative industries with North East cultural organisations including Warner Music and Generator and Hachette and New Writing North, and supporting SMEs and freelancers through the Creative Growth Programme. Leverage with the private sector is vital to creating a sustainable and resilient ecosystem for cultural production and participation within the North East. 

By underpinning a coherent culture strategy with a long-term settlement, the new combined authority will facilitate the creation of public-private cultural investment funds and create the conditions fertile for innovation. This will include the development of thematic as well as region-wide signature cultural partnerships that are underpinned by agreements with specific named investors, donors and philanthropists aligned to a shared vision for delivery. Devolution unlocks the possibility of this dynamic funding mix for culture in mayoral contexts. Through an integrated approach, combined authorities can identify projects where cross-combined authority involvement can be aggregated to achieve greater impacts and to inform new investment funds to empower creative and cultural freelancers, SMEs and organisations to seed, fledge and scale within the region. 

Devolution Evolution

The culture of a region is more than just the icing on the cake: it can offer a unique connection between its past, present and future, while the cultural and creative industries can position a region at the forefront of innovation, design, and investment on a global stage. This is important, because devolution and levelling up are not just about central government money; they are about creating investable propositions at a local level. The case a place puts forward for investment must be credible, and culture and creativity can help inform this. For combined authorities to adopt authentically inclusive models of growth, they must focus not only on driving headline economic performance but developing self-determination in models of innovation and prosperity, harnessing the power of their people and places to deliver a decentralised agency at a local level that unlocks the economic as well as the social benefits of creativity and culture for everyone.