North East Culture Partnership Submission to DCMS Committee inquiry into Arts Council England

19 February 2014

Executive Summary of Key Points

Our submission addresses the three areas raised by the Committee. We focus on:

  • The limiting of ACE’s regional contribution by a growing distance from decision-making powers. Driven by successive funding cuts, this is reducing input from locally-informed expertise and knowledge
  • Our keenness to work with ACE on new ways of delivering funding and activity in the regions. These could draw in fresh funds and better achieve regional and national ambitions.
  • ACE should create partnerships that devolve or share some areas of investment with expert regional groups such as NECP. This would assist a more equitable and effective geographic distribution of funding. It would build on the model of current partnerships with NESTA et al.
  • A need to rebalance funding that effectively takes money from regional economies to invest in London-based organisations.  The whole of England must also benefit more from ‘national’ organisations. 
  • We do not believe that subsidy per attendance is an appropriate metric to shape decision-making. It will discourage risk-taking and long-term thinking.
  • We wish to work together on determined and sustained efforts to rebalance the current geographical pattern of distribution. ACE should invest in the many high quality and high impact arts and cultural organisations in the regions.

About the North East Cultural Partnership

The North East Cultural Partnership (NECP) was launched in 2013. It aims to harness the power of culture to promote health and well-being and forge a dynamic and successful economy. Co-ordinated by the Association of North East Councils, it includes elected members from all 12 local authorities in the region and leaders from arts, cultural, North East Chamber of Commerce and educational organisations. It is creating a 15-year cultural vision for the region. Activities include a joined up festival offer and promotion and placing 100 artists in 100 businesses. NECP is also joining up university services to support SME creation by the region’s graduates. It is also working with the North East and Tees Valley LEPs to attract EU and other funds. 

The work of Arts Council England (ACE), including its scope, scale and remit

ACE has been a key partner with local authorities, business, tourism and the cultural sector. Together we have developed an outstanding cultural infrastructure. This has been part of the regeneration of our region following industrial restructuring of the 1980s and 90s. It has built on work done with Northern Arts before its merger into ACE in 2002.  It has drawn in significant amounts of European and private sector investment. (In 2009 NewcastleGateshead Initiative estimated this to be well over £200m).  This has enabled people to take part in great cultural activities and to develop artistic practice and creative businesses. For a region emerging from recession, culture is central to increasing SME start-up rates. It also helps keep talented people in the region and attract inward investment. It helps make the region an attractive place to live and work. Through these impacts it increases confidence, aspiration and well-being.

These developments have enabled increases in cultural participation, although levels remain low in many parts. Many local authority areas are in the lowest 20% for cultural engagement. This is reflected in the region having 3 Creative People and Places projects currently running. Arts participation has, however, increased by 4.4% between 2005/6 and 2012/13. This is the third highest increase nationally, so we are building on positive developments. Museums and Galleries attendances have increased by 11% over the same period. 

Alongside this has been the success of artists based in the region but working nationally and internationally. These include Kathryn Tickell (awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music in 2009) and choreographer Liv Lorent (awarded an MBE in New Year Honours 2013). The creative and culture industries are now worth £755m in Gross Value Added (GVA) to the North East Economy, 2% of total GVA.  We have consistently invested in innovative new models for organisations. Entrepreneurial approaches to earned income have been key to a region where philanthropy is difficult to achieve consistently. ACE has been an essential and positive contributor.

Building on the developments of the last 15-20 years, NECP is now developing a 15-year vision for culture. Our wide range of partners is keen to contribute more to economic, cultural and social development. But a series of organisational restructures, driven by cuts to grant-in-aid funding and governmental directions, have led to fundamental changes to how ACE works in practice. This has created a very different partnership situation. (We note that these reductions in funding have occurred under both Labour and Coalition governments. This is not a partisan point.) Reductions in regional control over resources have made this change worse. Cuts to local authorities and less regional activity by national bodies beyond the cultural sector have also been damaging.

In 2002 ACE was recreated with a revised Royal Charter by merging The Arts Council of England with the Regional Arts Boards. The Chair of ACE Gerry Robinson affirmed in 2002 that a fundamental premise of this change was  ‘greater decision-making at a regional level’. It also promised efficiency and the creating of a ‘level-playing field’ for all regions. This provided involvement for those based in every region, in all levels of decision-making and governance. Since 2010 this design principle has been eroded and then decisively moved away from. This has added to the pattern of funding for culture of decisively centralized decision-making. Strong, clear relationships with decision-makers once regularly led to genuine collaborative investment. This has been replaced with distance and lack of clarity over decision-making. (In answer to ‘Who will make the decision?’ the current NPO guidance merely says ‘Final decisions on grants will be made by the Arts Council England.’) We could cite examples of ACE officers themselves being puzzled by decisions taken outside the region that do not reflect the knowledge of those working with the sector and partners at a local level. We offer below to assist with partnership approach to devolving funds.

NECP appreciates some of the drivers for these choices. We understand the large reductions in funds for staff and facilities. However, many feel a distance from decision-makers is growing. This is eroding our ability to develop shared purpose and shared knowledge. Relationships of trust and informed mutual understanding become harder to maintain consistently across England. This may ultimately inhibit both regional ambitions and the ability of ACE to achieve its mission outside London. Its funding patterns suggest this should already be a concern. Encouraging business support of the arts, and the creation of a vibrant creative economy is vital. The broader creative industries are a small but growing part of the North East economy. There are SME clusters in several places, particularly around our universities. ACE's ability to support this development has reduced in recent years. Adding museums and libraries to their responsibilities has presented further challenges for ACE. At times it has been  difficult for ACE to work well with others to make the post of the potential synergy between arts, museums and libraries in local agendas.

A brokerage role was key to ACE’s many achievements. It led to significant investment of time, money and other resources by partners. The structure adopted in 2013 has made this more difficult for those working locally. We do not underestimate the potential catalytic effect of ACE in connecting relationships to investment. We are equally conscious of the ambition-dampening effect of unseen decision-making processes uninformed by local knowledge. One creates a virtuous circle of joint investment and creativity that, with an open mind about quality and impact, leads to a better, fairer balance of investment. The other reinforces a status quo of London-centric funding and cold spots of participation across England.

The economic and artistic criteria that underpin funding decisions

NECP broadly welcomes ACE’s 10-year strategic framework ‘Great Art and Culture for Everyone’. We welcome the focus on supporting excellence and creating opportunities to access and take part in arts and culture. The emphasis given to work with, by and for children and young people is also important. The criteria for funding decisions as expressed in relation to National Portfolio funding and Grants for the arts reflect these ambitions well. The range of other funds developed by ACE under Strategic Funding vary in their intent and in their ‘fit’ with our developing economic and cultural vision. Traditional notions of ‘excellence’ sometimes tend to push more local or participatory versions to the margins.

A reduced ability to reflect a genuinely national diversity of local experiences can lead to a narrower view in practice of what excellence means. It may also restrict the potential contribution to regional economic growth. The 'balancing' Criteria used by ACE could emphasise more the social contribution of local cultural development. They could also better reflect the contribution to the creative economy across England. This would better support ACE’s ability to work in partnership with non-arts partners. Our experience working with the two LEPs in our region suggests ACE needs to make a stronger case. This should highlight the distinctiveness of each area and the contributions to regional image and visitor economy. The potential role within economic development, including link to creative industries is vital. We welcome the efforts of ACE National office to influence LEPs. We believe joint work and investment across government departments would strengthen this further at regional level. We note that the Big Lottery has established a much more strategic fit with LEPs and EU funding around community engagement projects.

In addition, we suggest that a wider variety of funding mechanisms including loans and start-ups grants should be available. These might support cultural and creative businesses whose practice may sometimes sit outside ACE definitions of ‘excellence’ but who may nonetheless contribute to local economic and creative development. ACE should invest at the point of most need and most impact, to achieve an effective spread across England of cultural opportunity.

This does not necessarily equate to equal funding per head of population per local authority area, either regionally or nationally. Local requirements vary. (Taking into account density of venues and organisations, for instance, or the ability of people in rural areas to travel to events.) For the same reason, we do not believe that subsidy per attendance is an appropriate metric to shape decision-making. It could discourage risk-taking and investment into the kind of work that develops great artists or projects with long-term impact.

Partnerships with other funders enable ACE to draw on the expertise of others in investing its funds. It also creates larger grant pots. They devolve or share decisions with appropriate experts, but provide an appropriate national purview.  The ability to be strategic rather than ‘one-size-fits all’ can be retained. We commend recent partnerships with NESTA on the Digital R&D Fund and PRS Music Foundation on the Momentum Music Fund. This principle should be extended to other areas, to enable local expertise from right across England to inform investment.

This should be done working with regional agencies and networks such as NECP or through one with other foci such as artforms. It is important that such partnerships are shaped by local knowledge as well as national overviews. Only this will encourage an equitable and effective cultural ecology across England. Without that local knowledge there is a risk of concentration of funds geographically or in particular organisations. It also leads to missed opportunities to develop the arts and cultural sector. The pattern of ‘cold spots’ across England for arts excellence and participation would continue. Some see the current NPO system as exacerbating this, making more locally-determined development difficult. This can also reinforce differences in the ability to draw in private sector investment. The relative lack of large corporates is a particular issue in the North East.

There has been a tendency for ACE to partner with national bodies. Such partnerships often fail to build in meaningful local knowledge. ACE’s ‘Area’ definitions count Berwick-upon-Tweed as in the same ‘Area’ as Knutsford. To use such 'Areas' to assess balance of investment across the country is clearly inappropriate. Removal of local authority input into Grants for the arts, driven by a need to make cost-savings, has led to a reduction in shared knowledge of applications. This has damaged both the insight available to ACE to inform difficult choices and local knowledge of applications.

NECP would be keen to explore how it and partners in North East England might work with ACE to pilot new ways to incorporate local experts in some areas of decision-making. Alongside ‘Area’ and National Councils that work at overview level, this could effectively devolve or share some areas of investment. Given its membership NECP has the authority and mandate to do so. NECP feels it is vital ACE experiments to break the status quo of grant distribution.

The geographic distribution of funding

Our main concern is that geographical distribution of funding flows from centralized decision-making structures. These favour national institutions and London-centric versions of excellence. We believe that any system designed primarily to guarantee equal spend php is unlikely to deliver the developmental role ACE should play. Nor will it develop consistent access to high quality arts and culture for all the population. This applies whether focused on the demand side, audiences and participants, or on the supply side of artists and organisations. We would argue that ACE should adopt the principle of subsidiarity more widely. This would encourage fairer and more effective geographic distribution of funding. ACE should engage in partnerships that devolve or share decision-making in certain areas of activity with groups such as NECP.

NECP believes the current geographic distribution of funding fails to deliver consistent access. As the report on ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital’ illustrates, in 2012/13 ACE distributed £20 per head of population in London and just £3.60 php in the rest of England. This is grossly disproportionate, despite the importance of London-based organisations to the cultural ecology. It has led to networks of artists and organisations in some parts of England, which, for all their strengths, are smaller and less powerful than we need. This also applies within individual regions. Consolidation of investment tends to have the unintended side-effect of creating areas with few funded arts organisations and museums, especially outside cities and in rural areas.

We value the partnerships North East cultural organisations have with national institutions based in London. We would urge ACE and DCMS to require more activity outside London from such bodies. Touring organisations enrich our venues. The growing digital access to national collections is exciting. We do not, however, think this ‘national reach’ argument for historical patterns of funding is sufficient. Nor is it justified by the actual extent to which some national organisations work regionally. It fails to recognise the cyclical and sporadic nature of most touring patterns, as opposed to more consistent local provision. It neglects the very local nature of many people’s cultural lives, and the difficulties, including costs, of changing that. Travel and accommodation costs to visit National institutions in London are prohibitively expensive for many people in the region. It also fails to recognise the national leadership roles played by some organisations based in the regions.

North East England has the highest proportion of households playing the National Lottery. It has the highest weekly Lottery expenditure by region. The current distribution of funding by ACE and other distributors effectively takes this money from regional economies to invest in London-based organisations. ACE should work with partners across England to identify ways lottery funds could be used towards strategies such as our 15-year vision. We offer the experience and efforts of our cross-sector membership to help do so.

We are keen to work together to invest in the many high quality and high impact arts and cultural organisations in the regions. This could not only rebalance geographical distribution, but more importantly create the kind of culture and economy we all want for our region. Our track record in the North East shows the role that ACE can play in this. Given support from government and the willingness and strategic nouse to be effective locally right across England it can be more powerful.

North East Culture Partnership
February 2014