Covid19 recovery: Investment in arts and culture

Plants sprouting

– Written by Chiara Badiali,Knowledge and Sector Intelligence Lead at Julie’s Bicycle

How could the investment in arts and culture be spent sustainably?

The announcement of a £1.57 billion investment to help the arts, culture, and heritage weather the consequences of the COVID-19 shutdown is a much-needed anchor among uncertainties that reach at least into 2021.

The big questions now are how and where the money is spent, will it be enough, and how fast can it be put to use. The stakes are high; there is the obvious need to protect ‘culture’ from catastrophe, but there is another imperative: the climate and nature crisis. The Government is eager to hail this recovery package as ‘the biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture’. That makes it not just about the money; it’s the signals and priorities that accompany the cash that matter. Decisions we make now will shape our cultural future: they could help set us on the right course towards Net Zero, or in the wrong direction entirely, on a trajectory that would take years that we don’t have to reverse. We must start facing the future sooner rather than later.

In June, the Committee on Climate Change published its 2020 Progress Report, stating that steps taken by Government so far “do not yet measure up to meet the size of the Net Zero challenge”, that we must “integrate Net Zero into all policy making” and that “success requires that net-zero emissions and improved climate resilience are integral to the COVID-19 recovery.”

At the same time, over 800 artists and creative professionals have endorsed the letter Julie’s Bicycle sent to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden calling for a just and green cultural recovery.

We reiterate and expand on the six asks in our original letter– crucially, that the Cultural Renewal Task Force prioritise a rapid, just, and green recovery, with designated representatives on all sub-groups who can evaluate decisions through the lenses of climate mitigation and adaptation.

As part of the £1.57 billion investment package in culture:

  • We must ensure that every capital project receiving investment from the ring-fenced £120 million capital fund can demonstrate how it will be compatible with the UK’s Net Zero targets and prioritises achieving a future-proof zero-carbon cultural estate, including through investments in energy efficiency (building fabric, lighting and appliances, passive heating/cooling), decarbonisation of heating e.g. heat pumps, and on-site generation of renewable energy. The Committee on Climate Change has identified low-carbon retrofits as a priority – and every building that is built or renovated today without taking into account our net zero commitments will no longer be fit for purpose within less than a decade. Energy efficiency investments will also help organisations reduce their future energy bills, making them more resilient through the longer-term recovery period.

  • The £100 million of targeted support for the national cultural institutions in England and the English Heritage Trust should come with an explicit requirement for these institutions to put in place and invest in science-based net zero pathways aligned to (or more ambitious than) the Climate Change Act.

  • The £1.15 billion in grants and loans for cultural organisations in England should similarly consider how to support a just and green transition. Without, at this stage, having the full detail on how these will be shaped and distributed, one idea might be to ask organisations, as part of their grant requests, to consider how they will support local authority roadmaps for net zero carbon either through practical emissions reductions and/or working with their communities. Only this week, culture writer Charlotte Higgins suggested that in shaping this recovery, “a smaller, more local public will have to be involved more deeply in their institutions”: this is one such opportunity.

Investment into a just, green, cultural recovery

A week ago, Rishi Sunak also announced a £3 billion green investment package to be spent this year to support energy efficiency and boost employment. This is a good start, though at best a ‘down payment’ on what is needed: the UK has some of the least efficient buildings in Europe. £1.1 billion of this is earmarked to support the decarbonisation of public buildings: any arts organisation housed in a publicly owned building should currently be enquiring whether they will be eligible – and if not, why not.

Alongside all this, we need to continue finding ways in which a just, green cultural recovery can be linked with the UK’s overall Net Zero ambitions.

Perhaps we could use this moment to offer transferable skills opportunities for freelancers and small suppliers who may not benefit from the announced recovery package, thereby recognising, celebrating, and using the skills already in the sector to good use. For example, the Committee on Climate Change has identified digital infrastructure and fibre rollout as a priority for DCMS: the outdoor events supply chain could offer many pre-existing skills for installing weather-proof infrastructure in green spaces.

Finding ways to stage more outdoor art while venues remain dark could support pedestrianisation projects and community ownership of public space instead of drive-in gigs that reinforce dependence on cars (and resultant congestion, emissions, air pollution and access skewed to those owning cars).

And can we create opportunities for the creative workforce, while spaces remain closed, to participate in some of the shovel-ready projects (like tree-planting) identified by environmental organisations? Mark Rylance has already championed the idea of a ‘National Nature Service’.

Social and cultural climate action

With the impacts of climate change and environmental pollution disproportionately hitting the most disadvantaged both within the UK’s borders and internationally, this is a deeply ethical crossroads. Black Lives Matter, alongside the pandemic, has recharged public conversations about racism and inequality and highlighted divisions that are directly mirrored in the context of climate change.

How the arts, culture, and heritage community emerges from this lockdown is important. Having campaigned with one voice to make the case for exceptional public investment, it isn’t too much of a stretch to connect climate action with the ‘social contract’ in ways that benefit us all.

In the next crisis, it might not be enough to point to the economic or intangible value of the arts and culture: rather, we want to be able to show specific examples of how the arts have helped build, build, build a just transition to a greener, healthier, fairer society.