‘Valuable’ culture budgets slashed as financial pressures grow

Councils remain the biggest funders of arts and culture in England despite dedicated budgets reducing by nearly £500 million since the onset of austerity, according to a report.

Analysis by the County Councils Network (CCN) found it was “extremely hard” for councils to avoid slashing budgets for cultural services including libraries, tourism and support for the arts due to the rising costs of social care in particular. This is despite a widespread acknowledgement of their social and economic value.

Government figures show councils overall budgeted £1.6 billion in 2010/11, but accounts for 2023/24 reveal dedicated spending has plummeted by nearly a third in the last 14 years to just over £1.1 billion.

The biggest area of cultural spending is on libraries but councils have cut their overall expenditure on these services by a quarter (£232.5 million) since 2010/11.

Financial support for museums, galleries and theatres has been reduced by £166.8 million over the period, a reduction of 30%.

Meanwhile, the analysis shows spending specifically on tourism, a key driver of economic growth, has seen the largest fall of all cultural services, with a reduction of 63% since 2010/11.

London councils have reduced this spending on tourism by 80% over the period, while other metropolitan boroughs have cut budgets by two-thirds.

Due to ongoing demand pressures and forecasts of huge budget overspends this year, some of the 20 county councils and 17 county unitary authorities represented by CCN have proposed a further round of reductions in funding for cultural services in 2024/25.

Suffolk County Council recently announced plans to cut its core arts funding by 100%, but later reversed the decision and approved a £500,000 fund for local arts and heritage organisations.

CCN said the Government’s recent revision to the local government financial settlement in 2024/25, which included an additional £500 million for social care, could potentially reduce the scale of reductions to cultural services in some areas.

However, the organisation called for a “clear discussion” with the next Government after the general election on what library and cultural services local government can deliver when budgets are largely spent on adult and children’s social care.

Sam Corcoran, CCN vice chair and Labour leader of Cheshire East Council, said councils had “thought outside the box” to save library services, but added this was “only half the story”.

He added: “Councils are the biggest funders of arts and culture in England, and we recognise the value of investing in libraries, arts and heritage attractions for both our communities and our economies.

“But councils have found it extremely hard to avoid significantly reducing their spend on libraries, culture, and tourism since 2010 with funding being prioritised towards statutory and life-critical care services.

“We know how much residents value cultural services, but the reality is that we have been unable to avoid reducing support for them.”

Cllr Corcoran said the extra Government funding in 2024/25 may “stave off the most severe reductions” in spending but called for long-term clarity on the provision of libraries and cultural services.

The CCN also called for the current cultural development fund to continue under the next government.

However, it argued the competitive bidding process for funding should be removed and money distributed “fairly” across the country.

A report this week by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee warned that the “out of control” crisis in local government driven by long-term funding constraints and a “broken” financial system can only be ended by the Government providing billions of pounds more to councils.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “We recognise councils are facing challenges and that is why we recently announced an additional £600 million support package for councils across England, increasing their overall proposed funding for next year to £64.7 billion – a 7.5% increase in cash terms.

“This additional funding has been welcomed by leading local government organisations, but we remain ready to talk to any concerned council about its financial position.”