Brexit, Culture and Local Government: A Peasants’ Revolt Foretold?

As in other things, the cultural sector seems to have been ahead of the game. As we all struggle to come to terms with the UK’s vote for Brexit, and the enormity of what it says about our country, I’m left wondering whether our own sector, in its own small way, offered an early warning that there was a problem.

2013 saw the publication of ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital’ (Stark, Gordon and Powell, 2013), a report that infamously found that public arts spending in London was 15 times greater than outside the capital.

And as the Brexit vote now threatens to tear our country apart, dividing the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’, another factor seems worthy of attention: between 2009/10 and 2014/15 spending by England’s local authorities was cut by a fifth (source: Financial Times Research, 2015).

The map of areas worst affected by local authority spending cuts and the map of areas in which a majority voted for Brexit bear some striking similarities. The Bristol/Bath corridor, a strongly ‘Remain’ area, saw small gains in Council spending in 2015/16, as did the other ‘Remain’ cities, Manchester and Liverpool. Huge swathes of non-metropolitan England saw further cuts.

The Brexit vote (Blue=Majority Leave; Yellow=Majority Remain)
The Brexit vote (Blue=Majority Leave; Yellow=Majority Remain)
Change in council spending power, 2015-16
Change in council spending power, 2015-16

The maps aren’t carbon copies of one another: Pro-remain London authorities saw large spending cuts – although London, as ‘Rebalancing our Cultural Capital’ showed, gets the lions share of national funding – while Brexiting Kent and certain areas of the East Midlands saw small gains.

However, what does seem clear is that the sustained central government assault on local authority funding has created a country in which a majority of the population has suffered steady degradation of services, prospects and quality of life in their local communities. Opportunities to experience, participate in and create culture are just one part of what is being lost.

And, as rival candidates now set out their stalls in a bid to secure a democratic mandate, I hope they can’t have failed to notice the geographical divisions unleashed by the last 10 years of austerity. And to those supercool metropolitan areas with their own elected mayors, hoping to negotiate their own deals with the EU, might we say: ‘Who is trying to pull up the drawbridge now?’

All views expressed in this post are personal.

Words © Claire Gulliver

Maps: 1. Department of Communities and Local Government; 2. www.bbc.co.uk