After a decade of austerity, councils need a new way to fund culture

The Millennium Centre for the performing arts, Cardiff. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Cardiff council explains why he helped launch the Cultural Cities Enquiry.

Within living memory, the landscapes of Britain’s core cities have been transformed. Once smog-filled bastions of heavy industry, they have faced down the spectre of managed decline, and emerged as vibrant hubs, dominated by the knowledge economy and services. While each city responded differently to the challenges of deindustrialisation, the role of culture in regeneration has been a consistent theme.

Glasgow’s European City of Culture programme in 1990 was a turning point for that city, as it was for Liverpool in 2008. In Cardiff, sports and culture were brilliantly and inventively used to transform the city – culminating in our hosting of the UEFA Champions League Final and being named the UK’s first Music City. Across our cities, a buzzing cultural scene has become a major part of what makes our cities such great places to live, particularly for the young, creative people who are so vital in the 21st century economy.

As a result of this transformation, modern Britain is a global creative powerhouse. Go to any country in the world and you will meet people who listen to music, play video games, read books, watch films and plays created in our cities. The creative economy is one of our most important export industries, accounting for almost 10 per cent of the UK’s GVA and around 2.5m jobs.

Building creativity into our education system, as we are doing in Cardiff, creates children who are able to think differently to adapt and to invent, who will be able to respond best to challenges like automation that are already disrupting the jobs market. 

But the benefits of culture are not restricted to the balance sheet. Culture is about people and the places they live. It brings us together. It creates shared experiences and strengthens bonds between people and communities, so important when there are some – a tiny, tiny minority – who are trying to do the opposite, by creating division and spreading hate. 


Culture and the arts can make a massive positive difference across all aspects of city-life, culture – but this is now under threat. A decade of austerity has left the financial model which underpins culture in British cities creaking at the seams.

It will soon be in crisis. New solutions and radical changes are needed, recognising the simple truth that the traditional approach to funding and supporting culture in the Core Cities is broken.  

Organisations like the one I lead are contending with spiraling demand and shrinking resources. Public sector investment has long been the backbone of UK cultural provision, but after a decade of austerity we cannot fund it the way we used to.

The challenge is compounded as technology changes the way culture is consumed, and the persistent blight of inequality leaves a significant proportion of our most disadvantaged communities with limited access to the arts.

That is why the time is right for the Cultural Cities Enquiry. The enquiry will bring together cities, UK arts councils, and leaders from a range of sectors to consider how we can ensure our cities remain world-leaders for culture and creativity. 

Our aim is to create a set of practical recommendations that will enable city leaders and cultural institutions to make the best use of available resources and set up new channels of investment.

Successive governments haven’t yet provided the tools to realise the economic potential of cities and they haven’t fully unlocked their cultural potential either.

Given the right policy levers, cities can add to the UK’s formidable reputation as a creative powerhouse. We know that greater local flexibilities are key to success – yet UK cities currently control only 5-7 per cent of their tax base. This is five times less than the OECD average and ten times less than US cities.

The Basque city of Bilbao, for example, secured the Guggenheim Museum because its city government had freedoms on local spending and tax retention that UK cities can only dream of.

In New York the development of leading cultural institutions – Including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum – were carried out through a local trust. This allowed for culture bonds, triple tax-exempt debt and borrowing to fund growth.

Our cities are already experimenting with new approaches. Newcastle recently helped Live Theatre build a new headquarters by offering a loan at preferential rates; Bristol struck a new deal with funding agencies; while Nottingham and Sheffield both invested in creative industries quarters, stimulating the local economy. But, given the scale of the funding challenge, we are a long way from where we need to be.   

This enquiry, that will report its findings this autumn, is the vital first step on a journey towards a new and sustainable way of funding culture in our major cities – where creativity can flourish, and where the transforming power of the arts can be enjoyed by all our citizens.

Cllr Huw Thomas is leader of Cardiff council. To find out more about and submit evidence to the Cultural Cities Enquiry, click here.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.