Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Local Government Association


  1.  Local authorities make a vital contribution to the arts in the UK, through a combination of direct funding and strategic support. The links between arts organisations, local authorities and the national and regional funding agencies are extremely complex, and certainly extend beyond simple grant-giving.

  2.  Reform of the arts funding system, such as is being proposed in Working Together for the Arts, brings considerable risk in that it may disrupt successful partnerships, as well as presenting opportunities for forging new ones. The success or failure of the proposed reforms will be determined by the extent to which the Arts Council foresees how changes to its own national and regional structures will impact on the arts sector as a whole. The LGA's interest in the process is to ensure that reform of the funding system does not disrupt (or rather, enhances) the ability of local authorities to encourage and facilitate arts activities in local communities.

  3.  At a national level, the Local Government Association meets regularly with the Arts Council of England at both member and officer level. In recent months, the two organisations have met (bilaterally and as part of a broader group) to discuss aspects of the proposed new arts funding system, including establishing a working group to consider the future of local authority subscriptions and partnership arrangements, and to identify and extend existing best practice. At a regional level, there are many formal and informal links between local authorities and regional arts boards and it is here that the proposed reforms will have the most immediate impact from a local authority point of view.


  4.  In the Committee's invitation to submit evidence, there are four specific questions. This memorandum is organised around these questions.

Does the LGA support ACE's proposals?

  5.  The Committee's letter to the LGA (23 January) makes two assumptions about the ACE proposals which the LGA might be thought to support—that the proposals deliver (a) greater local authority representation on regional arts councils and (b) greater local authority participation on funding decisions.

  6.  It is useful to consider these assumptions before going further.

    (a)  Local authority representation is set to rise from 30 per cent on the existing RAB boards to 40 per cent on the RACs. This translates to six (out of 15) local authority places on each RAC, with the exception of the South East which will have eight (out of 20).

        In its response to Working Together for the Arts, the LGA argued for 10 places for local authorities to reflect the importance of local authorities in the funding system, and most crucially the local councillor's role as a democratically elected representative of his or her community. The higher the level of local authority participation, the stronger the directly accountable links into local communities. The LGA is disappointed, therefore, that (although an improvement on the current proportion) the number of local authority places on the RACs is not higher.

    (b)  As well as the local authority members with places on the new RACs, there is a significant challenge for the Arts Council to maintain, and build on, the links which regional arts boards currently have with all local authorities. In our experience of discussing the Arts Council's and RAB's work with our member authorities, there is considerable variation in the level of engagement. Elected members with places on RABs are, unsurprisingly, most engaged. Other authorities in a region, however, may be more distanced from the decision making process and although arts officers may be engaged, and the authority may pay subscriptions, it is not always the case that the RAB is fully in tune with the strategic priorities of an authority and vice versa.

        The reformed arts funding system will need to ensure not only that local authorities have a greater say in funding decisions but that local authorities are more fully engaged in the broader dialogue of strategic planning, research and information, developing partnerships and advocating the benefits of the cultural services.

  7.  The Arts Council's proposals begin to acknowledge this. With regards to recognising the role of local authorities, Working Together for the Arts was a considerable improvement on A Prospectus for Change, and discussions with ACE since the publication of Working Together have shown a continuing commitment on the part of ACE to explore better means of working in partnership with local authorities. This has been welcome.

  8.  The LGA remains to be entirely convinced, however, that the reform of the arts funding system will achieve this goal of greater devolved decision-making and greater involvement of local authorities. The process is well underway but it is only since the publication of Working Together for the Arts, that the detail of the reform proposals has begun to emerge. The LGA was broadly in favour of Working Together but noted in its response that there was an urgent need to work up the detail in most of the key areas. The LGA has welcomed ACE's willingness to share documents and discuss issues of detail with the LGA during the course of the transfer period. The LGA remains mixed in its views about the reforms—on the one hand, keen to explore opportunities to improve ways of working between local authorities and the national and regional arts councils, and on the other still waiting to obtain the full picture of how the reforms work in practice.

  9.  The LGA wishes to see a number of elements in place in the reformed arts funding system—most of which are recognised by ACE, but which require much further work to turn from theory into practice. Put briefly, these include:

    —  Addressing the democratic deficit—ensuring that the system is transparent and accountable to local communities, not least through the meaningful participation of local authorities.

    —  Maintaining and learning from the best examples of partnership with local authorities (and not disrupting these in the process of reform).

    —  Moving to a more sophisticated relationship with local authorities than the existing subscriptions system, so that genuine strategic partnership working is encouraged and value for money maximised.

    —  Getting an appropriate balance between national, regional and local—with decisions being made as close to the local level as possible. This is the element of the ACE reforms which provokes most scepticism amongst local authorities—ACE has a major challenge to show that the new structures will localise rather than centralise decision-making. As described above, communication with the full range of local authorities (and a better engagement with parts of the authority beyond the arts department) is key to this.

    —  Engaging with developments elsewhere in the cultural sector and in regional government, such as taking into account issues arising from the review of Regional Cultural Consortiums and any future White Paper on regionalism.

Will this bring decisions on arts funding closer to the regions?

  10.  Much of this point has been covered in the previous section. In addition, it is important to note that the LGA believed that the ACE's papers and announcements on the reform of the system needed to be more forthright on the views of the region carrying equal weight to the views of the centre. There is still a sense that central direction will be paramount, particularly led by the priorities of central government. The LGA wishes to see an arts funding system which communicates the needs and ambitions of local communities up to the national bodies and government, and an Arts Council which is an effective advocate for the arts, rather than an agent of central government which merely cascades central directions.

  11.  This builds on the idea that the reform of the system cannot simply be about grant-giving but also the importance of evidence gathering and representing the local and regional voice.

  12.  The reformed structures will need to maintain the distinctive voices of the regions and local communities represented through the RACs and national council. In this respect, the ambition to have fully representative councils, which attract a suitably diverse group of people to serve on them, is a particularly important ambition of the new Arts Council.

  13.  This ambition may be let down by the extent to which ACE is able to communicate that this is a truly new organisation and that it is genuine in its desire to devolve decision making to regional level. In the LGA's view, ACE has not so far communicated successfully the scope of the new organisation and, as described above, it is too soon to determine how far the proposals will achieve devolution of funding and decision-making.

Will they improve efficiency?

  14.  Efficiency must not be confused with making financial savings. ACE has set itself ambitious targets to make savings of £8-10 million in terms of staffing and overheads costs. The LGA has doubts that this can be achieved without disrupting valuable expertise and effective links.

  15.  In the LGA's view accountability, responsiveness and accessibility are most important. Efficiency should be gauged in terms of how the system delivers these, rather than in simple financial terms.

  16.  In striving for savings, therefore, ACE must also balance out:

    —  diverting resources to the arts (which, rightly, is the ultimate aim);

    —  maintaining appropriate staffing levels to enable the RACs to have the capacity to respond flexibly and quickly to local needs;

    —  maintaining consistent quality standards across the system;

    —  establishing clear and transparent lines of communication (including streamlining grant giving and application processes).

Will they create better accountability for arts spending?

  17.  As argued in the previous sections, the need for greater accountability is vital to the success of the reformed system. The involvement of local authorities will contribute to this, through the involvement of democratically elected members, as will the ambition to have diverse and representative RAC council members. The continuation of local authority-led arts forums would enhance the extent to which local authorities are able to participate in, and scrutinise, the decision making process. It is hoped that the new RACs will continue to provide information and support for these forums.

  18.  Like efficiency, accountability is not simply about accounting for financial decisions. The reformed arts funding system needs to work towards a set of published outcome-focused priorities and be held to account in relation to progress against these. Although the priorities will be influenced by central government priorities, it is also essential that local authorities, through the RACs, are able to contribute to the setting of targets and priorities.

  19.  A clearer protocol on the availability of council papers and supporting documents, with papers being made public (unless for legitimate reasons such as commercial sensitivity) would also be welcome.


  20.  ACE's proposals for reforming the arts funding system have met with a mixed reaction within local government. The manner in which the proposals were first put, in A Prospectus for Change, provoked negative reactions which ACE has not entirely assuaged, although the publication of Working Together for the Arts and subsequent discussions with the LGA have helped to ameliorate some of this negative reaction. The LGA has been impressed by ACE's willingness to engage in discussion and joint working around some of the detail of the transition, although it is true that there is still much to do to convince the local government sector at large that the reforms will provide them with a more direct input into the decision-making process.

  21.  The LGA will continue to liaise with the Arts Council and the RAB/RACs to argue that local communities must have a strengthened voice in the new structures. The LGA looks forward to working with ACE to develop the proposals beyond the structural changes set out in Working Together towards a more visionary and policy-oriented approach, which puts the arts firmly within a broader context of accessibility, local regeneration and improvements in the quality of life of local communities.

11 February 2002

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