New ‘devolution deals’ will see billions of pounds of taxpayer money handed directly to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the West Midlands Combined Authority as part of what the government are dubbing a “devolution revolution”.
Our top line: There is now an opportunity to bring thought leaders, decision makers and members of the public together in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, to consider what ‘cultural devolution’ looks like in practice, and consider what macro-level policy mechanisms might be needed to support it.
What we know about the deal so far:
o The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt MP is expected to confirm in his Spring Budget on Wednesday 15th March 2023 that two city regions will be given “full spending powers” over several areas including education, transport, and housing, effectively seeing these combined authorities becoming like “mini government departments”.
o The long dealmaking process, interrupted by recent political instability, concluded last Friday with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove MP bringing negotiations with Metro Mayor Andy Burnham (GM) and Andy Street (WM) to a conclusion. The process has been widely seen as constructive, with good cross-party working.
o At this stage, the ability for Metro Mayors to raise and retain taxes locally does not seem to have been included in the new deals, though Andy Street’s call for some proportion of VAT to be retained has not yet been ruled out by the UK Government yet. We await further detail of the plans on Wednesday.
o The deals are widely seen as an opportunity to prove concept and build trust with a view to devolving more powers to the combined authorities down the line. Other combined authorities will no doubt also be watching carefully to see what comparative advantages accrue to GM and WM, and take a position on whether they would like their own enhanced devolution deals some time in the future.
o As one of the most centralised countries in the world, Metro Mayors have long spoken out about the “begging bowl” culture that characterised the relationship between Whitehall and their areas in the past. Recent uneven distributions of levelling up related funds has also caused consternation from MPs on all sides of the House.
o Mayors broadly believe that single, unified and longer-term budget settlement will enable them to horizon scan and plan for larger scale programmes, including infrastructure projects with private sector investment.
What this could mean for the UK’s creative and cultural sectors:
o Following research on successful models of culture-led regeneration over the last ten years, Culture Commons has identified recurrent and major barriers to the development of creative and cultural activities in local authorities that sit within combined authority areas. For example, the overwhelming level of work created by the circa 18+ ‘levelling up’ funds that local authority officers must bid in to is suboptimal, particularly within the context of the significant cuts local government has seen across the board in the last 12 years.
o The fact that these bidding processes are also often underpinned by competition-based model of investment leads to those areas that already have well established creative and cultural sector infrastructures simply securing more. In turn, this sees places that could benefit most from targeted culture-led investment losing out, compounding the disparities we touch on later in this briefing.
o Despite a clear direction of travel signalled by both main political parties, there is very little detail from them on exactly how, to whom, and when they envisage devolving ‘cultural policy’. Indeed, what constitutes ‘cultural policy’ is vigorously contested, partly because the legislation and associated policy levers sit across several UK Government departments, the devolved administration, very different levels of local government, the private sector, a series of arm’s length bodies and grant giving organisations.
o At a major conference earlier this year, both the Secretary of State and Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities explicitly stated that “culture” would be factored into their respective devolution plans. Culture Commons are currently engaging with all political parties at the national level to better understand the ways that ‘cultural devolution’ is being positioned within their plans.
o It is important to note that ‘culture’ and the ‘creative industries’ (i.e. DCMS related policy areas) have not yet been specifically cited as part of the new devolution deals, though we hope to get further clarity on this in the Spring Budget. Eyes will now turn to the combined authorities to better understand how their new powers and spending capabilities will be used specifically to support the creative and cultural life of their areas.
o Here at Culture Commons, we’ve been advocating for a new national funding mechanism to support culture-led regeneration that harmonizes several different levelling up related funds for to streamline and coordinate investments locally; these new deals are taking a very similar approach but at a much larger scale.
o Most combined authorities already have a fully-fledged culture strategy which speaks to the policy priorities of their regions and have a dedicated culture team in place able to maximise opportunities and plug gaps where they exist. New powers are therefore likely to result in investments being made in the creative and cultural sectors that align with the objectives in those strategies. Encouragingly, we continue to see combined authorities making significant investments in culture.
Why ‘cultural devolution’ is important:
o The UK remains a heavily centralised nation with severe inequalities across a broad range of indicators; these disparities express themselves most obviously when we look at the longstanding inequalities between, but also within, the regions of the UK. Long standing geographic inequalities in employment rates, weekly earnings, productivity, educational attainment, and health and wellbeing, continue to leave many areas behind, preventing places from reaching their full potential. Narrowing the gaps between London and the South East, and addressing the disparities within regions, whilst maintaining the success of world-leading creative clusters is now a major policy challenge.
o An uneven distribution of creative businesses, sectoral productivity and cultural infrastructure we see in the UK, as well as the significant drops in expenditure we have seen in local authority funding for arts and culture has impacted investment in local creative and cultural infrastructure for over a decade.
o A lack of access to high quality digital infrastructure, research and develop incentives, and a growing skills gap looms large in the list of barriers to growth identified by creative businesses. Access to finance, business support and wider skills are also threats that require a considered policy response. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has deepened some of the regional disparities we saw before, particularly for those subsectors made up of a disproportionately large number of freelance, self-employed, and atypical workers, and micro- and small enterprises who were particularly badly affected, and who were less likely to receive state support.
o Back in 2022, we launched 12 policy recommendations to the UK Government based on research by our research partners at the Centre for Cultural Value, which included the establishment of the Culture Commons designed national ‘Culture Forum’ programme (pg 16), and to which 6 Metro Mayors are already committed, could be just one way to create new platforms within combined authorities that support more inclusive decision making.
There is now an opportunity to bring thought leaders, decision makers and members of the public together in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, to consider what ‘cultural devolution’ looks like in practice, and consider what macro-level policy mechanisms might be needed to support it.
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