Across Britain, many communities feel as though they have been prevented from prospering in a changing world. Signs of decline are becoming more apparent as high streets are boarded up and shops, pubs, and post offices close down. The worst affected areas are struggling to create or attract the entrepreneurs, the new businesses, and the highly skilled, highly productive workforce they need to foster economic growth and development.
In the face of these significant challenges, communities across the country have sought to use their rich artistic heritage and cultural assets as potential solutions. Investment in arts and culture offers the possibility of local economic development, increased pride of place, improved quality of life, and transformed life chances. As the Culture at the Heart of Regeneration White Paper argues: “Most people now accept that you cannot breathe new life into cities, towns and communities without culture. Sometimes the cultural element alone becomes the driving force.”
Arts and culture account for a considerable part of local authority expenditure. In 2017 – 2018, councils in England spent more than £960m on support for art, heritage, museums and galleries, theatres and public entertainment and libraries, with many providing additional substantial in-kind investment. However, local authority financial support for arts and culture has been increasingly constrained by austerity. Cuts to local authorities’ budgets, warned the New Local Government Network in 2016, are likely to result in “the funding available for activities beyond their statutory duties… largely disappear[ing] over the next five years”.
At this time of sustained and serious budgetary challenges for local government, the Fabian Society is launching a new research project to understand the impact of arts and culture spending in local communities. It seeks to identify ways that both national and local government can maximise the benefits of scarce culture funding, while placing it at the heart of efforts to create better places to live.
We will be looking at four key areas, each of which pose a challenge to policymakers:
- Economic growth: How to ensure that ensure that arts and culture spending, especially for major events like Cities of Culture, delivers sustainable and long-term improvement in growth and investment;
- Regeneration: How to promote culture-led regeneration that benefits the whole community while avoiding displacing existing, mainly poorer, communities through gentrification and increased property values;
- Quality of life: How to ensure investment creates arts and culture for people who live in a community, not just the people who visit as tourists;
- Tackling social disadvantage: How to provide accessible arts and culture in local communities for all, not just the most privileged.
While about the project will take account of local government spending on arts and culture across England, it will analyse in more depth arts and culture investment in two case-study areas: Hull and Waltham Forest. In 2017 Hull hosted the second UK City of Culture, while Waltham Forest is currently the first ever London Borough of Culture. Both went for a year-long focus on arts and culture in the hope of improvements to regeneration, investment, and quality of life. They saw culture as creating ‘great places to live and do business’, as the leader of Waltham Forest Council wrote in the authority’s successful bid for London Borough of Culture sought “to use culture to create great places to live and do business”. Our area-focused analysis will provide insights to local councils across England who wish to use arts and culture to support stronger communities, but who may be unwilling or unable to bid for one-off initiatives such as UK Cities or London Boroughs of Culture. These initiatives often highlight broad themes such as the importance of inclusivity, diversity, and sustainability that are as equally applicable to local authorities wishing to use culture and arts in more lowkey ways.
As part of the project, we will be working with councillors, arts organisations, and academics across England to provide a range of voices on the importance of arts and culture. We especially want to hear from new voices and gain a grassroots perspective on how culture and arts benefit local communities. We encourage anyone who would be interested in contributing to get in touch by contacting Ben Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org