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.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.