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Support for our cultural institutions

Cllr John Merry CBE
November 14, 2020
In the second of a series of monthly blog posts, Key Cities Chair Cllr. John Merry CBE shares his views on how the cultural sector has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the work of Key Cities members in championing culture and the arts with policymakers and public sector bodies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had a dramatic impact on cultural institutions across the UK as venues operate at limited capacity due to social distancing measures, or have faced the stark reality of closing their doors to tourists and visitors. Key Cities is home to around 57,000 jobs in the arts, entertainment and recreation sectors, and our members have had to address a multitude of funding and operational challenges.

The economic importance of the cultural sector simply cannot be ignored, with an annual contribution of £2bn to the UK economy across the sector amongst the Key Cities alone. We also must not fail to recognise the role of these institutions as community hubs and their benefits to our wellbeing.

The rich cultural heritage across Key Cities’ membership is also reflected with numerous cities having launched a bid for the 2025 City of Culture (Bradford, Medway, Southampton, Lancashire), following wins for Coventry and Kingston upon Hull in 2021 and 2017, respectively.

Whilst the challenges facing the cultural sector have at times seemed insurmountable, Key Cities has been working closely with its members to engage with central Government and highlight areas where further support is required to protect this critical industry. This is why earlier this year, our organisation wrote to the Secretary of State to ask central Government to work more closely with local partners in formulating solutions to individual and specific challenges bought on via COVID-19.

Given the diversity and expertise across our membership, we believe Key Cities is a natural partner for Government in developing a longer-term recovery plan for the heritage, cultural and tourism sectors.

Cultural Cities Enquiry

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cllr. Alan Waters (Key Cities Culture Lead and Councillor of Norwich City Council) led on Key Cities’ involvement in the Cultural Cities Enquiry alongside Core Cities and the Arts Council. With our input, the enquiry highlighted the role that culture plays in forming the identity of towns and cities across the UK, both economically and within civic society.

One proposal that is central to the enquiry is the formation of ‘Cultural City Compacts’, providing collaboration between local leadership and partners such as city government, culture, LEPs, higher education and the private sector. Together with Core Cities and Arts Councils, Key Cities can operate as a testbed to support the first wave of Compacts, which can serve as a vital function for local and national dialogue on cultural issues.

In the Autumn, with the Arts Council, the members of the Culture Cities enquiry reconvened to ‘COVID proof’ its recommendations published in 2019. A series of roundtables considered how the cultural sectors, including across our membership base, could be protected for the long term.  Arising from these discussions, a Cultural Cities Recovery publication is being finalised and will be circulated to all members of the Key Cities Group for discussion and comment.

What is abundantly clear is the spotlight that COVD19 has put on the limitations of an unsustainable model based disproportionately on income generation. The challenges for the Cultural Cities partners will be to devise a suitable, alternative approach for this vital sector; integral to future growth and prosperity across our cities.

The BCP Cultural Enquiry

As a group, we have already taken strides in implementing the initial recommendations of the Cultural Cities Enquiry, with Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council having launched an ambitious new consortium of partners to shape a shared ambition and collective opportunity for BCP as a place of culture.

Dialogue between stakeholders is pivotal to address any policy issue, and the enquiry embodied collaboration through partnership with BCP Council, Arts Council England, Arts University Bournemouth, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Lighthouse Poole and Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership.

By drawing upon the expertise of a range of partners, the enquiry has developed a ‘whole place’ process of review, engagement and visioning for culture in order to promote ways that culture works across the region, while exploring opportunities for the sector in the future.

The road ahead for cultural institutions

Following the introduction of nationwide lockdown measures at the beginning of November, financial support provided by the furlough scheme and grants for cultural institutions will be critical in supporting the sector throughout this challenging period.

The innovative solutions put in place by many of Key Cities’ members and its partners will play a crucial role in the sector’s economic recovery to COVID-19. In this regard, Key Cities and its network are committed to working together and sharing knowledge across our network to address the challenges that the cultural sector continues to endure so that we can emerge from this crisis with a plan to renew and grow.

Cllr. John Merry CBE, Deputy Mayor, Salford City Council and Key Cities, Chair

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