Local government is a pivotal funder, facilitator and enabler of culture in the UK, thanks in no small part to the inherent similarities between the two’s publics – one person’s electorate is another’s audience.

According to the Local Government Association (LGA), who’ve just launched a Commission on Culture and Local Government In England, councils spend more than £1bn a year in England alone, making them the biggest public funders of culture.

More than 3,000 libraries, 350 museums, 116 theatres, as well as numerous castles, amusement parks, monuments, historic buildings and heritage sites, get income from their local council.

Support is a two-way street

But this is by no means a one-sided relationship. Cultural organisations’ innate creativity can make it easier for councils themselves to deliver successful services. The LGA commission’s report ‘Cornerstones of Culture’ found:

“A vibrant cultural ecosystem creates jobs, supports health and wellbeing, enhances learning and opens up opportunities for young people. It draws people to the high street, underpins the visitor and night-time economies, supports the growing creative industries and helps to make places unique.”

In return Yamin Choudury, joint CEO and Artistic Director of Hackney Empire, points out how the extraordinary success the report references (of the venue upping youth engagement from 50 to 5,000 in a single year) was made possible in large part by the council’s regeneration of nearby railway arches.

A cycle emerges, throwing into sharp relief the core role culture has to play in helping councils who are similarly looking to build on the LGA’s 2020 Creative Places guidance on how to harness the power of local creative economies to achieve wider developmental impact.

Councils need data and insight to justify expenditure of public money

Culture’s ability to delight and fascinate audiences brings people together – building resilient communities, attracting visitors to urban centres and, in so doing, ensuring they thrive. In fact, Arts Council England research shows more than half of people want to see more culture on their high streets.

Developers seem to be wise to this too – in London, the Southwark Playhouse (my local stomping ground) has recently been offered a tenancy in a new development at 76% below market rent for the lifetime of the building. The developers have done the accounting; they know it will bring in people and make their overall project more successful.

But to ensure the numbers add up and to justify the expenditure of public money, councils need both data and insight to reinforce the figures. The efforts of Torbay and Bath & North Somerset councils are good examples of where audience data has helped local authorities to properly evidence their return on investment in cultural organisations.

Their pragmatic use of data to identify underserved local audiences, develop targeted communication campaigns, make difficult funding decisions, and set realistic improvement goals, allowed them to make a strong case for continuing to provide funding support to local cultural initiatives.

Culture is about people not buildings

This grasp of the local economy is just as crucial as understanding local creativity to being able to put your local people first. During our research for the LGA’s Creative Places guidance, we heard a story about how an incoming council chief exec wanted to build a new regeneration strategy around the borough’s historic industrial sectors. Only to be taken aside by the cultural officer who’d mapped the borough's economy and could prove that residents were more likely to work in the creative than the heavy industries.

Indeed, the Policy and Evidence Centre’s research on clusters and microclusters actually shows that almost everywhere in the UK has a pocket of professional creativity that is not only substantial, but mutually dependent and self-reinforcing.

This is exactly the sort of data that helps councils prioritise the support they give to their local culture sector – because it helps them understand and articulate the value that culture brings, and to how many people.

Arguing culture’s corner is an artform in itself

In an era of ongoing pressure on council budgets, the amount of funding that councils can give to cultural organisations has fallen – down by 40% in the decade before the start of the Covid pandemic. As a result, in council budget-setting meetings the length and breadth of the country, questions are being asked about why they should continue to fund local cultural services.

The argument isn’t made any easier by the fact that councils don’t have a statutory duty to support cultural organisations – the closest provision is in the Local Government Act of 2000 which gave local authorities powers to take 'any steps which they consider are likely to promote the well-being of their area or its inhabitants'. So, culture often loses out in the fight for scarce resources against services that council do have a statutory duty to deliver.

But there are arguments that can and should be deployed to justify spending money on culture. A powerful one is that culture actively helps councils deliver many of their other strategic priorities. Leeds’s Cultural Strategy explicitly argues the benefits of supporting culture can be felt by everyone in the city, quoting the Principal and Chief Executive of Leeds College of Music in saying: “Culture has no membership criteria”.

In this context, culture helps to unite the area’s diverse communities, the council to deliver its statutory services, and the city to build its national and international reputation.

The council and culture coalition

These are the ‘spill over benefits’ that spending on culture delivers. Like helping reach sustainability targets – such as Oxford City Council’s Greening the Arts programme, or the similar initiative run by Manchester City Council – or enabling schemes to deliver public health benefits, such as Southwark Council’s Culture, Health and Wellbeing Partnership. This latter is another good example of the symbiosis between the municipal and the creative – by facilitating an innovative way to support local arts organisations, culture is helping the council in turn to be more innovative in the way it delivers its services.

Local cultural sectors and the infrastructure they contain are complex, varying from place to place. Many councils recognise their individual situation requires an individual solution. They’re becoming increasingly creative in how they exercise their convening and facilitative roles.

Some have developed Cultural Compacts, others have set up trusts such as Hampshire Cultural, charities incorporating wholly owned companies like Sunderland Culture, or partnership organisations that go beyond a focus on culture such as Liveable Exeter.

The City of Culture model has also been developed as a way of using culture to deliver positive benefits for communities, alongside the Greater London Authority’s London Borough of Culture, and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s Town of Culture.

These peripatetic and temporal celebrations are often used to improve cultural education in schools and colleges, with evidence showing that access to cultural education improves people’s life chances as well as addressing the many socio-economic barriers to careers in the cultural and creative industries. There is just so much collaborative potential for councils to consider.

Some easy first steps

If you work for a local governing body, here are some things you can do:

  1. If you need help on where to start, read our guidance for the LGA: Creative Places – Supporting Your Local Creative Economy.
  2. Download our Build Back Creatively Toolkit to help you map your cultural sector.
  3. Carry out a skills and capability audit on your council to find out what skills your residents have and what local employers are lacking.
  4. Read NESTA’s Policy and Evidence Centre report on clusters and microclusters.
  5. Find out how audiences are engaging with local culture with an Audience Profile Report.

This article was originally published in Arts Professional as part of a series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.