Levelling Up agenda: immediate impacts on Arts Council England distribution of funding

23 March 2022

The government’s Levelling Up agenda has had a significant impact on public funding for the arts and for cultural learning, with new directives from the Secretary of State to prioritise investment in specific geographic areas, and to re-distribute funding away from London taking immediate effect.

This post gives you the headlines, what this might mean for cultural learning, and calls for your experiences on how your work will be funded and supported going forward.

Key Documents: What has been published?

The Levelling Up White Paper was published in February 2022 and laid out a framework for some significant changes for Arts Council England (ACE) and the way it distributes its funding. We set out the details of the paper as a whole in a separate blog.

The White Paper was followed a few weeks later by a Funding Settlement Letter from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ACE, which gave much more detail on the ways in which it expected to see these Levelling Up principles put into operation. In it, ACE was given a set of clear directives from Nadine Dorries, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, on how to distribute its available funding to the sector. Here is the Department’s announcement.

These changes come into effect immediately, and will have a strong bearing on the outcome of the Arts Council’s 2023 – 2026 Investment Programme (one of the main routes of public funding to arts organisations in England). Organisations are currently developing applications for an 18th May deadline, and will need to adapt and respond now to the Levelling Up for Culture agenda. ACE has published an addendum to its guidance to take applicants through the changes.

What is new?

In the Secretary of State’s letter, she sets out the following:

  • The announcement of 109 Levelling Up for Culture Priority Places (LCUPs). These incorporate all of ACE’s previous Priority Places (except for the ones that were in London) and are areas to be prioritised for ACE investment and arts activity.

  • An uplift of funding for the arts of £43.5 million for the period 1 April 2022 to 31 March 2025, all to be allocated outside of London.

  • A reduction of £24 million per annum in the budget for NPO investment in London, to be re-allocated to the rest of the country

  • For ACE to identify a number of NPOs that are currently based in London and support them to consider relocating from London by 31 March 2025, resulting in an £8 million redistribution from the London budget. This relocation can be supported through funding for feasibility studies.

  • An expectation that ACE will prioritise investment for organisations that can demonstrate they will engage with a broad range of communities, including individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and promote access to culture
  • Organisations should ensure that their cultural activity widens access to culture, engaging children and young people, and adults, who are currently under-represented in terms of benefiting from public investment in culture.

What does this all mean for Cultural Learning?

This is a controversial policy that has been received in a number of different ways by colleagues in the sector. Some, chiefly based outside of London, have really welcomed it, and felt that they, and their work and communities have been noticed and valued for the first time. Others have voiced significant issues with the timing. They have made the case that asking Arts organisations to make this level of change (and for many, to model significant cuts), when they are just emerging from a pandemic and have taken significant hits to their finances and capacities, is neither achievable or fair.

The relocation from London element of the policy is one of the most contested, with organisations pointing out that, whilst they can move ACE investment, they cannot move their audiences, participants or other funding streams – many of which are tied to place.

As we’ve mentioned before, this Investment Round is the first time in well over a decade that funding for Cultural Learning strategic infrastructure has not been ring-fenced through the Bridge Programme. Although current Bridges are invited to apply, we do not know what the national picture will look like, or what the Artsmark or Local Cultural Education Partnership (LCEP) support picture will be from April 2023 (both are currently supported by Bridges).

LCEPs are welcome to individually apply for support, which could work well for some well-established partnerships, but might be more difficult for those collectives which are organic in structure and have very little paid core staff time.

Impact of Levelling Up policy change

This policy change is likely to have a significant impact. Many organisations will be looking to demonstrate their delivery against it by offering education and learning activity in the new LUCPs, and there is a strong call from across the sector for a National Plan to help to coordinate this activity; to guard against London organisations ‘parachuting’ into local communities, and against a large number of organisations descending on one area.

The policy represents new opportunities for any grass-roots, or unfunded cultural organisations in priority areas who are encouraged to apply for public funding for the first time, but it must be noted that there is very little practical support or capacity in the system for these organisations to undertake the lengthy and complex application process in the time allowing. Arts Council is only offering one meeting to each applicant to help them develop their proposals.

What does this mean for culture more broadly?

The Arms Length Principle is the principle whereby Government issues grant-in-aid to a particular sector, but does so through another body, so that the Government does not make direct funding decisions itself. The strong, detailed directives in this letter indicate that the Arms-Length has been significantly shortened; an important precedent to keep in mind.

It does seem clear that organisations will need to focus much more on demonstrating how they deliver against government policies and Let’s Create (the Arts Council’s Strategy), rather than setting their own agenda, something that will be made visible by the new requirement to display a plaque to mark taxpayer contribution alongside the ACE logo for any funded projects.

The directive to pro-actively move money out of London also sits at odds with some of the stated ambitions of the Levelling Up White Paper, for example in the Prime Minister’s Foreword it states:

"Politicians have been aware of this regional inequality for as long as it has existed, yet have been content to focus instead on the big picture of national growth – a waste of talent and a waste of this country’s economic potential.

The answer to it lies not in cutting down the tall poppies, or attempting to hobble the areas that are doing well. Instead I am determined to break that link between geography and destiny, so that it makes good business sense for the private sector to invest in areas that have for too long felt left behind."

What does this mean for the Cultural Learning Alliance?

Call for your experiences
Many organisations have been in touch with us to let us know that, after two years of pandemic, their funding structure has fundamentally changed and is more uncertain. The precarity of many cultural learning projects – many sustained by rolling project grants – has been highlighted over the last two years, and relationships with local authorities have changed: some very much for better as colleagues have been able to work in partnership to meet the needs of communities, but all with the backdrop of dwindling funds for core services.

As we go forward into the next year we are asking you to get in touch with us to let us know if the funding picture for your cultural learning work has changed, if so, how, and what the impact of that will be. We will make sure all your responses are anonymised and will check with you before we share them more widely.

These snapshots will give us a better idea of ways we can support you, and what we should be advocating for.

Send your thoughts to