Local authorities are important players in the provision and funding of cultural services. The Museums Act 1849 enabled local authorities to spend money on museum provision and the Libraries Act the following year gave them a statutory responsibility to make provision for libraries. However, support for the arts was primarily a post-World War II development. The Local Government Act 1948 empowered local authorities in England and Wales to spend up to a 6d (2 1/2p) rate on entertainment and the arts. Although the upper limit was removed by the Local Government Act 1972 very few local authorities got anywhere near spending the maximum amount permitted under the previous legislation. Nevertheless, some local authorities, especially cities and urban areas, took the permissive powers seriously as they were increasingly encouraged to become partners in arts provision with the Arts Councils and by the Government White Paper, A Policy for the Arts (1965).
However, for several years local authorities have been under considerable pressure because of governmental austerity policies – in the period 2010-2016 they experienced a 40% reduction in their grant from central government. This has had a detrimental impact on the cultural budgets and programmes of many local authorities, especially as arts and museum provision is not a statutory obligation. However, even library provision, which is a legal responsibility, has not been immune from the effects with many libraries closed and/or opening hours reduced as some local councils seek to provide a minimal level of service while still complying with legislation (see 3.2). Estimates suggest that local authority spending on culture had fallen by GB£ 390 million between 2011 – 2019 according to an analysis by the County Councils Network. Over one-third of 375 local authorities in England and Wales no longer have a dedicated arts officer or service. Some local councils have contracted out arts provision to private companies or voluntary organisations or enlisted voluntary workers because of the loss of trained or specialist staff.
Attempts have been made in recent years to stimulate local authority provision, e.g. in the introduction of competitive accolades such as the UK City of Culture and London’s Borough of Culture (see chapter 2.7). The success and legacy of Liverpool, European Capital of Culture 2007 has also been a factor in encouraging some local authorities not to seriously reduce their commitment to cultural activity.