Culture and poverty: can culture play a stronger role in delivering social justice in Wales?

11 November 2014

Article by Robin Wilkinson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Image from flickr by Tim Norris Licensed under the Creative Commons

Image from flickr by Tim Norris Licensed under the Creative Commons

In July 2013 the then Minister for Culture and Sport tasked Baroness Kay Andrews with investigating how culture and heritage bodies across Wales could contribute more effectively to reducing poverty. The subsequent report was launched in March 2014. This work was seen as complementing Professor Dai Smith’s report into Arts in Education in the Schools of Wales, which was published in September 2013.

In the Culture and Poverty report, Baroness Andrews takes culture to refer to the arts, heritage and the historic environment, museums, libraries and the media. She makes 33 recommendations, targeted at all organisations involved with culture and heritage in Wales, from the Welsh Government to cultural organisations themselves. These recommendations fall into four key themes:

  • New opportunities to drive change, in collaboration, across knowledge and resources from national to very local;
  • New opportunities to bring social, economic and cultural policy together in practical ways, from policy design, to practical delivery, at national and local level;
  • New ways of reducing barriers and access to the national cultural institutions, and to create new frameworks for local engagement and delivery; and
  • New tools, training opportunities and incentives to provide mutual support and better ways of reaching children, young people and adults.

The report states that “much of what is proposed is simply to make the capital and the human resources of Wales work harder”. This is perhaps just as well, as the Welsh Government’s recent draft budget shows reductions in allocations for the arts sector, museums archives and libraries, the historical and natural environment and media and publishing.

Significant local government budget cuts also mean that there is less money available to support these mostly non-statutory services at local authority level in Wales. Consequently, the Welsh Local Government Association has expressed concern about local authorities’ ability to help tackle poverty through culture, stating:

In light of the budget demands and pressures, the WLGA is concerned about the level of contribution and expectation local authority culture and art services can play in the near future towards tackling poverty and improving the lives of the most disadvantaged; the Association also believes that a shortfall in funding is more than likely to create a barrier to cultural participation and accessibility within communities.

(The impact of reduced support by Local Authorities for cultural & art service provisions, WLGA, October 2014)

The Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee recently discussed the Welsh Government draft budget allocations with the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism. In terms of funding for the arts sector, Members raised with the Deputy Minister comments from the Government’s own Strategic Integrated Impact Assessment, which states that the planned reductions to the Arts Council for Wales’ budget will be likely to create “some negative impacts […] for children and young people, disability, lower socio economic groups, sustainable development and Welsh Language”.

The Deputy Minister countered that “the correlation is not quite clear between the amount you put in in terms of revenue funding and participation”. In fact, he suggested that work undertaken as a result of the Culture and Poverty report, as well as the previous Arts in Education report, would lead to an increase in participation in the arts. However, he conceded that he thought there would be “negative impacts”, but that these would not necessarily fall upon “the priority groups of this Government”.

Key to minimising the detrimental impact of these cuts, he felt, was the annual remit letter the Welsh Government sends to the Arts Council. The 2014-15 letter, issued in February 2014, states that the Arts Council must respond to recommendations from the Culture and Poverty report, as well as more broadly seeking to tackle poverty through the arts.

The Committee also discussed with the Deputy Minister whether Cadw would be able to attract more visitors from disadvantaged backgrounds to its heritage attractions, given the proposed reductions to its capital and revenue budgets. Again, the Deputy Minister cited the importance of the Culture and Poverty report, stating that “in terms of widening access, there is potential through the work of Dai Rees and Baroness Andrews to attract people who would not otherwise visit historic sites, and indeed, museums and libraries to do so”.

When the Committee wrote to the Deputy Minister following the draft budget scrutiny session, it voiced its concern about the impact of reductions on the participation of disadvantaged groups in culture and heritage.

Baroness Andrews stated that the Culture and Poverty report “was commissioned by Ministers with the conviction that culture in Wales has a greater role to play in delivering social justice”. It is clear that given this reduction in resources, the Welsh Government and its partners will have to find new and smarter ways of working to ensure that culture can play this role.