Lords Debate on Local Arts and Cultural Services highlights need for coherent policy on libraries

Houses of Parliament

Nick Poole, CILIP Chief Executive writes about the House of Lords debate on local arts and cultural services.


Much has been made recently of the role of the House of Lords in holding the Government to account for the impact and effectiveness of their policies. The Lords are able to scrutinise, to question, to provoke and to recommend measures which will improve the welfare of UK citizens.


This role was strongly in evidence in this week’s wide-ranging debate on ‘Local Arts and Cultural Services’, including libraries. The motion, brought forward by long-standing library champion the Earl of Clancarty, was:


“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take to protect and improve local arts and cultural services, including museums, libraries and archaeological services.”


In all, 13 Peers spoke to the motion, with the response provided by Lord Ashton of Hyde, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.


The key theme of the debate was the apparent disconnect between the practical realities ‘on the ground’ for libraries, museums and arts organisations and the rhetoric about them in Government.


The Earl of Clancarty laid out the facts in his opening address:


“This year, councils will spend £10 billion less than they did in 2010-11. According to the Local Government Association, councils will face a gap of £5.8 billion just to fund statutory services, including social care.


"Local authority investment in arts and culture has declined by £236 million—overall, 17%—since 2010, and in the period 2010-15, Arts Council funding fell by 36%. The Museums Association reports that between 2010-11 and 2015-16, local authority spending on museums and galleries declined by 31% in real terms and that at least 64 museums have closed since 2010—the majority due to local authority cuts—including many much-loved museums such as the Lancashire textiles museums.


"The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals records that in 2014-15, more than 100 libraries closed in the UK, while in the same year 11% of the libraries in Wales were closed. These are fairly shocking figures.”


The Earl expanded on these concerns by highlighting a central issue – that ‘project’ funding (also known as ‘additionality’) cannot in itself resolve systemic or structural issues or inequalities in the core funding model for public services:


“Every locality and every person, irrespective of where they live or who they are, deserves arts and cultural access. This is not in the first place a business, as the Government are trying to turn many our services into; it is a right and it is a necessity. There should be ​statutory provision for local arts and culture. This not about competition between services. Central government should ensure that every local authority has enough funding to do its job properly in every service they cover. It is failing in that duty.


"I hope that the Minister will not refer to specific projects as though they are the main narrative—welcome as such initiatives may be individually, they should not be treated as such.”


Several peers took up this theme, returning several times throughout the debate to the point that the Government is currently failing to address structural issues in the development of the arts and cultural services, exposed as a result of the pressures on Local Authority budgets brought about by 8 years of austerity policy.


CILIP highlighted the lack of a joined-up plan for library development in England in our paper for the 2016 Autumn Statement, Giving Libraries strong leadership and commitment, in which we stated;

“England’s public libraries are part of a successful network which delivers key outcomes including learning, health and wellbeing, digital inclusion, civic participation and stronger local economies.


"Securing these outcomes for the long-term depends on effective leadership through a fully-funded and evidence-based National Public Library Plan for England that is owned jointly by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association.”

The ongoing impact of austerity on libraries and cultural services, compounded by the lack of a coherent national strategy, was also highlighted by veteran equalities and human rights campaigner Lord Cashman;


“Local authorities face very real and difficult choices, for instance when funding the increasing demands for social care services, but I would argue that it must not be one or the other; it should be both. What is the quality of life if it is devoid and deprived of culture, arts, libraries, museums and archaeology—the very ​things that open our minds and give us reasons to learn and live?”


While the Ambition for Public Libraries in England, produced by the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce, contains a number of key programmes such as the joint CILIP/SCL Public Libraries Skills Strategy, it stops short of providing an overall strategy to address library development which would secure the interests of local communities in the long-term.


In responding to the wide-ranging themes raised by the debate, Lord Ashton faced a considerable task. However, despite the Earl of Clancarty’s exhortation not to ‘refer to specific projects as though they were the main narrative’, this was, in fact, the main element of his response on behalf of Government:


“The whole Government recognise that [the popularity and value of local arts and cultural services], and it is why there have been excellent recent funding settlements for DCMS sectors, even at times of economic difficulty. Central government’s main financial support for the arts, culture and museums is delivered via Arts Council England; it plans to invest £1.1 billion of public money in the period 2015-18. These sectors also benefit from public funding through the National Lottery. The Arts Council alone is to spend an estimated £700 million over the same period. Furthermore, the Heritage Lottery Fund spent £434 million in 2016-17; it supports museums and heritage projects, including public libraries.”


The difficulty is that all of these measures specifically refer to project funding available to the sector, not to the central issue of the sustainability of core investment. This ongoing emphasis on additionality over core sustainability – capacity, refurbishment, stock - is a central weakness of today’s arts and library policy.


The reason for this is that the Government has more or less direct control over the priorities of lottery and other providers of project funding, but due to the overarching policies of devolution and austerity has elected not to exert control over the ‘core’ funders of libraries and civic museums – the Local Authorities themselves. By withdrawing funds from Local Authorities and leaving them, essentially to their own devices, Government is forcing them into a position whereby core structural issues cannot be addressed and, by association, creating the very real danger of significant inequality between communities in different parts of the four nations of the UK.


The Lords debate has therefore challenged the Government to make good a failing that sits right at the heart of their policy on local arts and culture – that what they are giving with one hand in the form of short-term project-funding is being directly undermined with the other through the systemic withdrawal of core public support for local services.


In his concluding remarks, Lord Ashton states;


"I will conclude by saying that arts and culture are a huge part of what makes the villages, towns, cities and nations that comprise our United Kingdom so special. We want them to be available to everyone, to be cherished and protected and to have the strategic and financial support that they need. This is the central mission of the DCMS, and it is heartening to be reminded that this House shares our determination.”


This recognition of the value of local museums and libraries is to be welcomed, but to be meaningful it must be accompanied by a real shift in policy to ensure that our vital public cultural services really do get the core ‘strategic and financial support that they need’.


CILIP will continue to lobby for this policy shift to secure the long-term interests of libraries and the communities they serve, both through our ongoing work on the My Library By Right campaign and our support for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries.



Image British Houses of Parliament by Maurice on Wikimedia, cropped and re-sized (CC BY 2.0)