With councils up and down the country looking hard at all areas of their expenditure in a bid to balance the books, the arts are often considered a soft target: after all who would prioritise the arts when local housing, education and health budgets are on the line?
And yet there are sound reasons why local authorities should do just that. The arts, as with many other areas of the public sector, are often discussed only in the context of the spending of public money.
But funding the arts isn’t simply about spending, it’s about real investment. It’s about investment that makes our country and our communities dynamic and better places to live, work and do business and that has a proven track record of regenerating our towns and cities. It’s about investment that offers a real economic return, fuelling the creative industries and promoting investment in business at a local and national level. It’s about investment that brings real improvements to quality of life.
Investment in the arts will be essential for future economic growth - already the creative industries account for two million jobs and over £16m in exports. As a nation we have the largest creative sector in the EU and, relative to GDP, probably the largest in the world. It is one of the few sectors that continued to grow throughout the recession.
At the absolute heart of this economic boom is local government, with authorities acting as an important partner in supporting the arts in England. Last year £102m of local government money was invested in Arts Council funded organisations. It would be an even higher figure if the in-kind support local government gives were included; support that provides the security of much needed buildings and business rate relief which allow arts organisations to concentrate on investing in their work so it is the best it can be.
Cultural spending, in most cases represents a tiny fraction of a council’s budget. Somerset Council, which recently attracted significant criticism and national attention for cutting its entire arts budget, had previously allocated just 0.0004% of its spending to the arts.
This kind of ratio belies the fact that the return on investment in culture is huge. Liverpool’s year as capital of culture delivered £800m for the Merseyside economy; in its first year the Sage Gateshead contributed £43m to its local economy; the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill £16m. And the arts don’t just contribute to building local economies - they can also be central to achieving local government priorities in terms of health, wellbeing and benefits to children and young people.
Sustained investment has led to the number of performances for young people increasing by 20% over the last 10 years and with a 55% increase in attendance. Pilot schemes in Manchester and Birmingham are already showing how cultural investment can be pooled with other local authority resources to deliver the best possible services to communities in all areas.
This kind of joint investment in the arts will help to create and maintain the kind of places people want to live. In a time of economic strain people want to feel a sense of community, to feel connected to their local environment. The arts can do this, using a mixture of public, private and volunteer support to raise aspirations, improve community cohesion and promote social responsibility.
They are valued by millions of people across the country and should be at the very heart of any Big Society vision. Now is not the time to succumb to the soft options of the past. It is a time for bold and clear thinking; to consider the evidence and make sound investments in local economies and the quality of people’s lives.
Based on these judgements, I don’t believe there is a local authority in the country that can afford cuts to the arts.
Alan Davey, chief executive, Arts Council England