The Usher Gallery in Lincolnshire may be hired out as a wedding venue as a result of council cuts. © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

Local cultural spending down 40% since beginning of austerity

Alex Stevens, 29.05.2019
Most deprived areas hit hardest, says IFS
Spending by local governments in England has fallen by 21% in real terms since 2009/10, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), and average spending on cultural and leisure services has decreased by more than 40% as councils prioritised statutory services when managing significant budget cuts.

Reductions in spending since austerity began have also been larger in more deprived areas, said the IFS, because cuts in grants from central government have had a disproportionate effect on councils with less income from other sources, such as council tax and business rates.

This year’s spending review and the local government Fair Funding Review will therefore be critical to how much councils can fund non-statutory services such as museums, with the IFS calling for “proper political and public debate, which has so far been lacking”. 

David Phillips, an associate director at the IFS and one of the report’s authors, said: "Current plans for councils to rely on council tax and business rates for the vast bulk of their funding don’t look compatible with our expectations of what councils should provide."

Richard Watts, the chair of the Local Government Association (LGA) Resources Board, warned that “unsustainable funding cuts and demand pressures are pushing local services to the brink”, and said that increased pressure on children’s services, social care and work on homelessness left progressively less money for cultural services, such as local authority-run museums.

“If the government fails to adequately fund local government in the spending review then there is a real risk to the future financial viability of some services and councils,” continued Watts. “Fully funding councils is the only way to ensure councils can continue to provide all of the valued local services which make such a positive difference to communities and people’s lives."

Alistair Brown, the Museums Association’s policy manager, said: “This report shows that the cuts that local authority museums have experienced in the last decade are part of a much wider reduction in local government finances. The LGA depicts a grim future in which local authorities in England face an £8bn funding gap by the year 2025, and the increasing pressure on statutory services such as social care and children’s services will squeeze out non-statutory spending on museums and other cultural services.

“It is clear that the current government’s policy of passing on spending cuts to local authorities cannot go on for much longer. The government’s reforms to local authority revenue-raising powers also seem likely to increase the divide in resources between richer and poorer areas of the country – creating a double whammy of cuts for the poorest areas. These issues need urgent review from the new government once it is in place over the summer.”

The effects of reduced funding for local government are being seen across England. In Lancashire, for example, five museums were closed in 2016, with four since reopening with reduced hours and the Museum of Lancashire still closed to the public.

Lincolnshire County Council cut its budget for heritage services by £500,000 in 2017/18, and is currently considering proposals that could see several sites closing.

Hertfordshire County Council this year sold 450 items from its art collection, raising £469,282 which will be used to conserve and improve access to the remaining collection of 167. The sold works included pieces by Anne Redpath and Edward Wadsworth, while those retained include sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and James Butler.

Meanwhile, a new report by the Creative Industries Federation and Arts Council England outlines how the UK’s successful creative industries – which contribute more than £100bn to the country’s economy – are supported by a wider arts ecology that is reliant on public funding.

“Without public investment into arts and culture, the remarkable economic success of the UK’s creative industries – the fastest growing sector – would simply not be possible,” says the report.

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