Local Government Finances - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:46 pm ar 21 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Freyberg Lord Freyberg Crossbench 1:46, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for initiating this important and timely debate. As the final speaker before the Front-Bench speakers, I would like to add my voice to others’ on how the arts and cultural services are an essential component within our local communities. As stewards of our communities’ well-being, it is incumbent on us to confront the challenges facing local government and to recognise the indispensable role that the arts play in enriching our lives and fostering vibrant and inclusive communities.

The fiscal health of local government is a barometer of our collective prosperity and resilience. However, over the past decade or so, most local authorities have grappled with budgetary constraints exacerbated by economic downturns, rising costs and competing priorities. The ramifications of these financial challenges extend far beyond the balance sheets of government offices; they reverberate through the very fabric of our communities, affecting the services and amenities that define the quality of our lives.

Amid these fiscal pressures, one area that often bears the brunt of budget cuts is the arts. Programmes and initiatives that support cultural enrichment, confidence-building, skills development, creative expression and artistic endeavours are often deemed non-essential or expendable in the face of tightening budgets. Yet such a narrow perspective fails to recognise the intrinsic value of the arts and their profound impact on our communities’ social, economic and cultural vitality.

The arts are not merely a luxury or an indulgence; they are a fundamental component of what makes a place thrive. From public art institutions that beautify our streetscapes to local theatre productions that ignite our imaginations, the arts enrich our lives in myriad ways. They foster a sense of identity and belonging, cultivate empathy and understanding and serve as a catalyst for social cohesion and community engagement.

Moreover, the arts are not just cultural assets; they are economic engines that drive local prosperity and growth. As the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, mentioned, studies have consistently shown that investment in the arts yields significant returns, generating jobs, stimulating tourism and fuelling economic development. Whether it be through the revitalisation of disinvested neighbourhoods that need to reinvent themselves through leisure and tourism, or the creation of creative industry clusters, the arts have the power to catalyse positive change and drive sustainable economic growth at a local level.

However, despite their undeniable contributions, the arts and cultural provisions remain vulnerable to the vagaries of budgetary constraints and fiscal austerity. When local governments face tough choices about where to allocate scarce resources, the arts are often relegated to the sidelines, resulting in reduced funding for arts organisations, cultural institutions and community arts programmes. This not only undermines the viability of these vital institutions but deprives our communities of the myriad benefits that the arts afford.

The impact of these funding cuts is felt most acutely by the marginalised and underserved communities, which often have limited access to arts and cultural opportunities. For many individuals, particularly young people, the arts serve as a lifeline—a source of inspiration, empowerment and hope in the face of adversity. When funding for arts education programmes is slashed or arts venues are forced to shut their doors, it is these communities that suffer the greatest loss. Here, I completely agree with others that, once these buildings are sold, they rarely, if ever, return to community use.

Moreover, the erosion of support for the arts exacerbates existing inequalities and perpetuates systemic injustices. As we are the world’s sixth richest nation, it is a sad state of affairs that even essential services such as libraries and museums are under threat owing to a lack of funding. Without adequate funding and resources, artists from underrepresented backgrounds face barriers to entry and struggle to make their voices heard. This not only stifles artistic innovation and creativity but perpetuates a homogenous cultural landscape that fails to reflect the diversity of our communities.

In confronting the challenges facing our local government finances, we must reaffirm our commitment to the arts and cultural provision as essential pillars of community well-being and resilience. This requires a paradigm shift in how we conceptualise the role of the arts within our communities—not as expendable luxuries but as indispensable assets that demand our unwavering support and investment.

To ensure the continued vitality of the arts, we must rethink the allocation of resources to support arts organisations, cultural institutions and community-based arts programmes. This includes sustained funding for grants, subsidies and public/private partnerships to empower artists and cultural organisations to thrive. It also entails integrating arts and culture into broader community development strategies, recognising their integral role in fostering social cohesion, mental health and well-being, economic prosperity and inclusive growth.

Furthermore, we must adopt a more equitable approach to arts funding, ensuring that resources are distributed fairly and that all communities have access to arts and cultural opportunities. This requires actively engaging with marginalised and underrepresented communities, amplifying their voices and centring their experiences in our cultural narratives.

The County Councils Network, in its briefing for today’s debate, calls for the next Government to have

“an honest discussion … as to what councils can be expected to deliver”

I believe that we should begin that process right now, because councils cannot afford to wait.

In conclusion, the state of current local government finances presents a formidable challenge, but it also presents an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to arts and culture provision as essential components of vibrant, resilient communities. As we navigate the complexities of budgetary constraints and competing priorities, let us not lose sight of the transformative power of the arts to unite, inspire and uplift us.