Are we finally seeing life beyond COVID? Rishi Sunak’s Spending Review last week brought home quite how overwhelming the pandemic has been. Sums of money so large they start to lose meaning: £113 billion extra public spending this year. And comparisons that sound more like fantasy fiction than economic history: the biggest fall in GDP since the Great Frost of 1709.
But, for those make it through, there will eventually be other things going on. The Spending Review had little specific for the cultural sector, but did reveal the start of the Government’s plans for “levelling up” the rest of the country with the hotspots of London and the South East. There may be opportunities for the cultural and creative sector here – if the right local decision making is put in place to make it work.
The Spending review set out three funding streams “supporting the regeneration of towns and communities… most in need”. All are available to cultural projects.
- The Towns Fund launched last year, but with only half a dozen cultural projects in the first 100 announced, despite “cultural assets’ being flagged up in the prospectus. There is a further £3.5 billion available over the coming years.
- The UK Shared Prosperity Fund is intended to replace EU Structural Funds, ramping up to £1.5 billion a year and, again, specifically referencing “cultural facilities”.
- The Levelling up fund has £4.8 billion, investing in projects up to £20 million, including “local arts and culture”. It’s less than the £7 billion that has been invested in the Local Growth Fund it replaces, but significant nonetheless.
An important technical change could also help cultural projects. The Treasury’s Green Book, which governs value for money assessments of public spending, is being revised, to allow a broader range of projects to get over the line. Assessments will need to be clearer about the strategic objectives of spending, and take more account of the specifics of the place the investment is being made and the possibility of investments being “transformational”.
But one major change is worrying. Despite all the aspiration to level up the regions, it all looks very centralised. The “Northern Powerhouse” has disappeared. Local Enterprise Partnerships, which oversaw the Local Growth Fund, have slipped from view. Metro Mayors and Combined Authorities are barely mentioned. Money will be dispensed after bids to the Departments of Transport, Housing or Business in Whitehall.
It’s hard to make good local investment decisions without local decision makers. People in power understand the value of culture locally. How can culture cut through at national level, and to Ministries with other responsibilities, to make sure it will play its proper part in the recovery?