Councils reduce library and culture spend by almost £500m since 2010, new analysis shows

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2024 | 02 February 2024

Council spending on libraries, culture, heritage and tourism has reduced by almost £500m since the onset of austerity, a new analysis shows.

New analysis from the County Councils Network (CCN) found that in 2010-11 – the beginning of austerity – councils in England budgeted to spend almost £1.6m on library services, culture, heritage, and tourism. Their latest accounts for 2023-24 reveal spending has decreased by £470m over the last fourteen years, with local authorities budgeting to spend just over £1.1bn on these cultural services.

Councils say they know the value – both economically and socially – of these cultural services, but have been ‘unable to avoid’ reducing support for them. With the average upper-tier council spending two-thirds of its budget on social care services – a trend higher for county local authorities – the last decade has seen scarce resource for cultural services focus on this rising demand for care services.

Despite these significant reductions, councils still remain the largest funders of arts and culture in England, budgeting £1.1bn in 2023/24. The findings are in a new County Spotlight report which finds despite these funding challenges, CCN’s member councils have continued to preserve, enhance, and transform library and cultural services.

Download the report here.

The report showcases this excellent work across 16 case studies, split across four themes: revolutionising library services; investing in state of-the-art cultural attractions; creative industries; and putting county tourism on the map.

However, the report also highlights that demand for care services shows no signs of abating, with CCN’s member councils forecasted to overspend their 2023/24 budgets by almost £650m. As a result, some local authorities have proposed another round of reductions in arts support and funding for libraries in their proposed 2024/25 budgets, with councils having to sign off on these plans by the end of March.

Following advocacy from the CCN and the County All-Party Parliamentary Group, the government last week announced it was providing an extra £500m for councils’ care services in 2024/25. The network says this funding boost could potentially reduce the scale of reductions to library and cultural services for some local areas.

The figures are released in a new report today by the CCN, which shows how councils continue to deliver a large breadth of these important cultural services despite having to make significant savings since 2010. The data shows:

  • Councils in England have reduced their expenditure on libraries, culture and heritage (which incorporates museums, theatres, and arts support) and tourism by £472m since 2010, based on their budgeted spend for 2023/24 compared to 2010/11. The 37 councils in county areas have reduced spend by £184.6m (-30%) over that timeframe, but it is councils in London and those covering the cities and major towns in the North and the West Midlands that have seen the largest percentage reduction (32%).
  • Library services are the biggest area of cultural spend and councils in England have reduced their expenditure on this service by one quarter – a total of £232.5m since 2010. Councils in county areas have overseen the largest reduction (£90m since 2010) but the second lowest percentage reduction (25%).
  • Support for local arts and funding for museums, galleries, and theatres has been reduced across England by £166.8m since 2010, a reduction of 30%. For this area of expenditure, the 37 councils in county areas reduced their spend by £70m, a 34% drop which is the highest of all local authority types.
  • All councils across the country have significantly scaled back the funding they have spent on tourism since 2010, owing to financial pressures. In 2010 local authorities budgeted £115.2m for tourism, but by 2023 this had reduced by almost two-thirds to £42.6m, a 63% drop.

The County Spotlight report highlights how some of this funding is spent: showcasing how councils have transformed libraries beyond simple ‘book borrowing’ services to become community hubs, spanning baby and toddler groups to mental health support, to offering internet lessons to elderly residents. As well as this, it highlights how councils have undertaken significant restoration projects for local museums and galleries and invested in creative industries.

With a general election likely to take place in 2024, the CCN says that the next government must set out a multi-year financial settlement for local authorities as soon as possible. As part of this, there needs to be a ‘clear discussion’ on what library and highly valued cultural services local government can deliver with the funding envelope they are given, with the vast bulk of councils’ funding now being spent on children’s and adult’s social care.

The report also recommends that the current government’s Cultural Development Fund should continue under the next administration, but should be reformed so there is no competitive bidding process and funds are distributed fairly across all four corners of the country.

 Cllr Sam Corcoran, Vice Chair of the County Councils Network, said:

“Councils are the biggest funders of arts and culture in England, and we recognise the value of investing in libraries, arts and heritage attractions for both our communities and our economies. In the face of the funding pressures since the start of austerity, councils have thought outside of the box and the transformation of library services to all-encompassing community hubs is a significant achievement.

“But this only tells one part of the story and as this new analysis shows, councils have found it extremely hard to avoid significantly reducing their spend on libraries, culture, and tourism since 2010 with funding being prioritised towards life-critical care services. We know how much residents value cultural services, but the reality is that we have been unable to avoid reducing support for them.

“With councils under perhaps the most significant financial pressure in recent memory, scarce funding will have to be prioritised to addressing overspends in care services but the recent announcement of extra money for councils could potentially stave off the most severe reductions.

“Nonetheless, with the costs of care unlikely to abate, in the longer term we need to have a clear discussion with the next government on the extent to which councils can fund library and cultural services with the funding envelope they receive.”

Local authority libraries, heritage, culture and tourism budgeted expenditure  – 2010 to 2024

Council type 2011/10 budgeted spend 2023/24 budgeted spend £ difference


% difference
CCN £613.3m £428.7m -£184.6m -30%
Metropolitan Borough £409.9m £277.2m -£132.6m -32%
London £300.9m £202.6 -£98.3m -32%
Unitary (non-county) £269.7m £213.3m -£56.4m -20%
Total 1.594bn 1.121bn -£472m -30%