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Cultural recovery for the North

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Over the last week the nation has been enjoying the easing of lockdown restrictions and the chance to meet friends and family without having to battle the elements.

But while hospitality venues across the North have been able to re-open their doors and invite customers inside, for the cultural sector the future remains extremely uncertain.

Prior to the pandemic, culture was flourishing. Creative industry was the fastest growing sector of the economy and represented an estimated 5.9 per cent of the UK’s Gross Value Added.

It wasn’t all rosy; high levels of insecure work, poor working conditions, and issues around equality of opportunity and accessibility were widespread. And across the Northern region there was a high level of frustration at the disparity of arts funding.

But the sector was rising to the challenge and working hard to thrive regardless. 

Then Covid-19 happened. And while the pandemic has had an indisputable impact upon many parts of the economy, the cultural sector has been one of the hardest hit.  

In an attempt to address the damage, the Northern Culture All Party Parliamentary Group have launched an inquiry into what Northern Culture needs to rebuild, rebalance and recover.

To ensure the voices of those working within the sector are heard in the inquiry, we asked members from across the Northern region for their perspective on what recovery should look like. Here’s what they told us.

Levelling up

It will come as no surprise that there is a huge disparity in the level of arts funding between London and the North.

When direct funding to major ‘national’ cultural organisations from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is combined with Arts Council England (ACE) funding, Londoners receive £69 per head compared with a measly £4.58 per head elsewhere in England.

Public funding for arts and culture in the Northern region must be equitable to that of London, without cuts to the capital’s arts organisations.

Public funding

The problem of poor working conditions within the cultural sector has been intensified by the pandemic. Members are reporting that due to a decrease in the work available, many creatives are working for pay well below what is deemed fair and decent and, in some cases, even working for free.

The government must ensure that public bodies allocating state aid and local funding use their powers to create good work within the sector.

Employment charters, such as Artists Union England’s A Good Practice Charter For Artists and the National Union of Journalists’ Freelance Charter, are an extremely useful tool in driving up the quality of work and offer an effective solution to addressing poor and insecure employment.

Additionally, local political administrations should sign up to the relevant TUC Cultural Manifesto (e.g. TUC Yorkshire and Humber Cultural Manifesto).

And there is undoubtedly potential for an improvement in the regulation of ACE and DCMS funds to increase transparency and accountability and ensure fairly paid jobs are being delivered.

Greater financial support for individuals

While there has been government support for the sector, it is a drop in the ocean. Even where larger, national organisations have received financial assistance, support for small organisations has been woefully inadequate.

As has support for the individuals who work within the sector.

Although the financial support offered by the government may help to keep buildings and venues open in the short term, this survival can only be temporary if nothing is done to support the people who work, perform or exhibit within them.

To address the financial hardship faced by so many within the sector, the next round of the Cultural Recovery Fund must be opened up to freelancers, as it is in Scotland and Wales.

Local arts, heritage, and culture strategies

Arts and culture must be at the heart of regeneration. Evidence shows that ACE and Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) funding is more readily available in areas where there is local authority investment and a clear strategy for the sector.

Each local authority should maintain and regularly update a comprehensive arts, heritage and culture strategy. This should actively support live performance including the night-time economy, live venues, festivals and street performers.

Increase local authority spending

In the Northern region, levels of local authority investment in the cultural sector vary hugely.

Local authorities should work towards the goal of investing at least 50p per resident per week in the sector.

Additionally, local authorities and LEPs should seek new and creative ways of supporting arts and culture. This could be through collaborative working, shared funding, specialised business and project support, innovation and experimentation.

And central government must support local authorities to do this.

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