A conference dedicated to exploring the future of civic culture in the UK was held at Newcastle University on July 2nd 2019. Part of the intention behind this event was to  foster conversations between those working in the public parks/libraries/museums/leisure sectors about the impact that austerity was having on their civic roles.

Details of the event programme, as well as copy of the introductory text incorporated into the original programme provided to delegates can be found below.

A write up of the event, written by our project Research Assistant, Thomas Hopkin, can be found via this link.

Introduction to the event

The Future of Civic Culture in the UK? is the product of a number of conversations which have taken place between staff in the department of Media, Culture and Heritage at Newcastle University and the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) in Newcastle. Recognising that major changes to local authority budgets, instigated by the 2010 Coalition government and accelerated by the Conservatives since 2015, are having a disproportionate effect on the museums, parks and libraries sector colleagues from Newcastle University and TWAM were keen to explore the implications of this for civic culture as a whole. As part of this we are conducting interviews with representatives from a number of public cultural organisations to better understand their perspective on the relationship between the assumed civic purpose of museums, parks and libraries, and ongoing austerity politics. In doing so, we seek to explicitly engage with issues of equality and inclusion as they are mediated through the principles of shared ownership and universal access associated with the cultural sector asking, as we do so, how austerity may be reshaping these principles. What, we want to know, is the impact of austerity on such principles and how, in the long term, might this impact the future of civic culture in the UK?

At present, cuts to local authorities are having a notable impact on public cultural organisations. As highlighted by a recent Centre for Cities report (2019), culture and related services have experienced some of the biggest reduction in total expenditure since 2010, second only to planning and development.[1] There is a clear unevenness to this – as work from Mia Gray and Anna Barford (2018) demonstrates, it is those cities most dependent on local government grants (itself often an indicator of socio-economic deprivation) who have faced the biggest cuts to their funding and who, in turn, have had to make the most drastic decisions regarding funding to the cultural sector.[2] Regional dimensions also play into this – as the Centre for Cities report highlights, cities in the north of England are among the worst hit by these measures, with Newcastle, for example, experiencing changes in total spending of 26.6%; a stark contrast to wealthier cities in the south, such as Cambridge, where total spending has only decreased by 12.5% .[3] These cuts matter in particular when it comes to civic cultural organisations, because it is these organisations who have, as the Mendoza report highlights, been most reliant on local authority funding in the past and who consequently experience the biggest budgetary cut backs when local councils come under pressure to save money.

Whilst we don’t yet possess a sophisticated enough understanding of the different impacts that austerity is having on culture on a regional basis, a number of national trends and statistics, outlined below, give us some insight into how public funding cuts are impacting locally funded museums, libraries and parks as a whole:


  • 51% of local authority museums reported a decrease in regular public income in 2018
  • Closure, or part closure, of one in five regional museums in 2015
  • 9% increase in asset transfer of museums from local authorities to independent trusts since 2000
  • 34% decrease in the number of full-time paid staff working in local authority museums in 2018 (in contrast to 21% across the sector as a whole)
  • Reduced opening hours (85% of the sector in 2018)
  • 8% increase in admissions charges in 2015


  • A £30m reduction in local authority spending on libraries in 2018
  • Closure of 127 libraries from 2017-2018
  • 5000% increase in community-run libraries since 2010
  • A 40% reduction in total staff since 2005
  • A 242% increase in volunteers working in libraries since 2008


  • A £15m reduction in local authority spending on parks between 2016 and 2018
  • Sale or transferral of management of parks to non-local authority stakeholders (50% of local authorities have done this in 2016)
  • Transferral of outdoor sports facilities to community groups (50% of local authorities have done this in 2016 and a further 53% expect to in the future)
  • Loss of frontline parks service staff (77% of local councils report having cut frontline parks staff between 2014 and 2016)
  • An annual contribution of £70m in volunteer hours to the running of parks services

About the Event

This one-day event is part of this wider project and will, we hope, offer an opportunity for those researching and working in museums, parks and libraries to come together to discuss the impact that austerity is having on their civic work and their ability to safeguard the future of these spaces. We look forward to welcoming you all to what we hope will be a thoughtful and dynamic day of discussion and debate on these themes.

Speakers for the day have been carefully chosen to reflect a diversity of perspectives within the museums, parks and libraries sectors, however we recognise a number of silences and gaps still permeate our programme. Most notably, we acknowledge an imbalance in the number of speakers representing the interests of those with protected characteristics (particularly around race, gender, disability and class). We have responded to this by asking panellists across different sessions to reflect on issues of equality and inclusion in their presentations. However, we want to also draw attention to the fact that these imbalances are structural in nature. Indeed, reports such as those released by Arts Council England have identified a continuing lack of diversity within the cultural sector where, for example, only 5% of museum staff are from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds (this in contrast to 16% of the working population who identify as BME). In a similar fashion, disabled staff make up only 4% of the workforce in the Arts Councils former Major partner Museums (in contrast to 20% of the population) and there has been a 10% decrease in women working in the museum sector overall. Other work from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals reveals similar patterns, with a workforce that is 97% white (in contrast with 88% of the population) and where there are high academic barriers to entry.[7]

Such trends are often exacerbated by cultures of volunteerism, which creates further barriers to diversification, in so far as the ability to volunteer for a local park, library or museum is sometimes reliant on individuals having a relative level of financial security. In recognition of this, many sectoral bodies are beginning to revise their volunteer programmes or internship schemes to try and make them more equitable and open to all, however progress on this front tends to be slow and change hard won.

It’s also the case that some of those organisations that focus specifically on issues of diversity and inclusion, and which are often grassroots and without local authority funding, may not have the financial backing or staff time to always be able to attend such events. Certainly, this is something that we encountered in the process of putting together this programme. Whilst we will endeavour to explicitly address some of these issues within our broader research project, we ask that delegates today also help us reflect on some of these conditions. Conversations from this event will inform our project conclusions.

We want this event to be a public conversation and are happy for delegates to share details of the debates and discussions from today on social media. However, in doing so, please respect the requests of individual panellists and, if asked to refrain from sharing particular conversations, or taking photos, then please do so.

The hashtag for this conference is #civicfutureUK.

For more information about the project, feel free to speak to one of the organisers, Rhiannon Mason, Bethany Rex, or Katie Markham. Our contact details can be found at the end of this booklet.

We look forward to sharing the day with you all.

Rhiannon, Katie and Bethany

This event and the project are being funded by the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal and Newcastle University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

[1] Centre for Cities. 2019. Cities Outlook 2019. London: Centre for Cities

[2] Gray, M. and Barford, A. 2018. The depth of the cuts: the uneven geography of local government austerity’. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 11:(3). pp.541-56

[3] We recognise that other nations within the UK have been acutely impacted by these cuts, however most of the data collected on austerity measures so far focuses on England specifically. It is this data we are drawing on for this report.

[4]Figures from: Museums Association. Cuts Survey 2015. London: Museums Association. Available from:,

Museums Association. 2018. Museums in the UK 2018 Report. London:

Museums Association and Larkin, J. 2018. ‘Mapping Museums: Preliminary results on UK museum closures 1960-2017. [Online]. February 23rd 2018. Available from:

It should be emphasised that figures for the number of closures in local authority museums are in general hard to come by. Indeed, the best source of information on the impact of austerity on the museum sector, the Museums Association Cuts Survey, stopped gathering data on this in 2015. Other reports on museum closures, such as those from the Mapping Museums project includes unaccredited as well as accredited museums and does not look at local authority museum closures independently. A similar problem is also encountered when trying to establish overall figures for budget cuts made to local authority museums in particular.

[5] Figures from: Barnett, D. 2018. ‘Do libraries run by volunteers check out?’. Guardian. [Online]. June 25th 2018. Available from:

Cain, S. 2018. ‘Nearly 130 public libraries closed across Britain in the last year’. Guardian.[Online]. December 7th 2018. Available from:

House of Commons. 2019. Public Libraries Briefing Paper 2019 (HC 5875 2019). [Online]. London: Commons Library. June 20th 2019. Available from:

Libraries Taskforce. 2018. Analysing data: CIPFA statistics and the future of England’s libraries.[Online]. August 16th 2018. Available from:

[6] Figures from: Heritage Lottery Fund. 2014. State of UK Public Parks 2014. London: Heritage Lottery Fund. Heritage Lottery Fund. 2016. State of UK Public Parks 2016. London: Heritage Lottery Fund

[7] Arts Council England. 2019. Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: A Data Report. London: Arts Council England. Hall, H. Irving, C. Ryan, B., Raeside, R. Dutton, M . and Chen, T. 2015. A study of the UK information workforce. CILIP/ARA.

Conference Programme

9.45 am: Registration

10-10.15am: Welcome

10.15-11.30am: Session 1: Researching the role of civic culture

With contributions from:

Bethany Rex (University of the Arts London)

Anna Barker and David Churchill (University of Leeds)

Kerry Wilson (Institute of Cultural Capital)

Lindsay Findlay-King (Northumbria University)

This session will encourage researchers to share and reflect upon what we mean by the term ‘civic’ and the implications that definitions of this term have for broader understandings about public participation in cultural and democratic life. There will be a particular focus within this panel on the differential impact that the austerity cuts might be having on different groups, places and kinds of organisations.

11.30-11.45am: Tea and Coffee Break

11.45am-12.45pm: Session 2: Sectoral Responses to austerity

With contributions from:

Iain Watson (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)

Isobel Hunter (Libraries Connected)

Rob Pearce (Parks Alliance)

This session will feature presentations from representatives working in the museum, parks and libraries sectors, who will discuss the way that different sectors have responded to the cuts imposed on them by austerity. Particular consideration will be given during this session to the impact that civic cultural organisations can have on social well-being and cohesion as we discuss the principles on which such organisations should continue to receive public funding.

12.45-1.45pm: Lunch

1.45-2.30pm: Session 3: Organisational responses for civic culture (Part 1)

With contributions from:

Richard Saward (York Museums Trust)

Tony Durcan (Newcastle City Council)

Duncan Dornan (Glasgow Life)

This session will reflect on the different ways in which individual civic cultural organisations are currently responding to the social, political and economic crises caused by austerity. Representatives reflecting a range of organisational responses will give an overview of the different models and responses they have had to austerity measures, offering some rationale for these. This session will be split into two parts, with the first half featuring responses from the ‘official’ public cultural sector and the second from grassroots organisations, whose work has developed in response to some of the gaps within the official sector.

2.30-2.45pm: Tea and Coffee Break

2.45-3.30pm: Organisational responses for civic culture (Part 2)

With contributions from:

Chris Clarke (Community Managed Libraries Peer Support Network)

Gill Hart and Kathy Dunbar (New Cross Learning Library)

Rosie Lewis (Angelou Centre)

3.30-4pm: Q&A

4pm: Summary and Close