Navigating the Challenges: Leveraging Combined Authorities for Arts and Cultural Funding

Navigating the Challenges: Leveraging Combined Authorities for Arts and Cultural Funding

Dawn Bainbridge is a Senior Engagement Manager at the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The cultural sector has long relied on a diverse range of income, including government and local authority, Trusts and Foundations, National Lottery, philanthropic donations, memberships, and corporate sponsorship. However, in recent years, the sector has been facing a series of challenges that have disrupted traditional funding streams.

Across the country, local authorities are making tough decisions in the face of austerity measures, leading to cuts in funding for culture. In January, Suffolk County Council announced a 100% cut arts and culture funding, sparking protests with some calling it a ‘national emergency’. These brutal cuts aren’t unusual; between 2011 and 2024, local authorities in England reduced spending on cultural services by £470 million, seeing spending fall from £1.6 billion to £1.1 billion. Despite these cuts, councils acknowledge the value of culture both economically and socially, but constrained budgets have led to prioritising other areas. This has increased pressure on organisations that are reliant on local government support, forcing many to seek alternative funding sources or face closure.

To compound the challenges, some Trusts and Foundations that have provided crucial funding for the cultural sector are winding down their operations or reviewing their funding priorities. Among them, The Foyle Foundation are winding up in 2025 and Paul Hamlyn has paused their arts, access and participation funding with new criteria and processes launching in April. Many other Trusts and Foundations no longer accept unsolicited applications.

Is there anybody out there?

Amidst the uncertainty, Combined Authorities have emerged as a potential source of funding for the cultural sector.

Combined Authorities are partnerships between two or more local authorities, created through bespoke 'devo deals' with central government to secure devolved powers and funding. Currently, there are 10 Combined Authorities in England, primarily in the north, midlands and south west, with nine having directly elected 'metro mayors'

The distribution of devolved powers and funding differs among the Combined Authorities. While many devolution deals primarily cover housing, skills, and transport, the Greater Manchester combined authority stands out with additional powers and funding allocated to criminal justice, health, and social care.

Combined Authorities are also responsible for regional development initiatives that may benefit the cultural sector. Combined Authorities can facilitate collaboration between local authorities, cultural institutions, businesses, and educational institutes to drive economic prosperity and social cohesion, maximising the cultural sector's contribution to economic impact, placemaking and wellbeing.

Combined Authority support for culture

Several Combined Authorities have demonstrated their commitment to supporting culture through initiatives and strategic partnerships.

  • Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA) established a growth company to support the cultural sector with investment, coaching, and skills development. CPCA recently announced £4.5million of funding for arts and culture in Cambridge.
  • Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) invests £4.3 million annually to support cultural initiatives. In 2023, GMCA announced £13million of funding for creative arts and culture through their Culture Fund programme.
  • Liverpool City Region Combined Authority invests in culture through initiatives like the 1% for culture pledge and strategic funds supporting projects like Future Yard. They emphasise collaboration and a long-term vision for cultural development, leveraging the region's strengths in film, music, and digital sectors.
  • West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has launched new funding streams and is collaborating closely with government and Arts Council England to support the cultural sector. The Combined Authority recently announced £20million for arts and culture; £10million from central government matched with £10million from the authority.
  • The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) prioritises the role of culture in driving economic success, as outlined in its long-term West of England Cultural Plan.
  • Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) focuses on "Creative Place," launching a £20 million Growth Programme for the Creative & Visitor Economies until 2026. In February 2024, TVCA also launched a new fund to champion the region’s creatives with five artists or collectives set to secure £30,000 each to accelerate their careers.

These success stories highlight the potential of Combined Authorities to drive growth and innovation in the cultural sector.

So, can we tap into Combined Authorities as another way of accessing funds?

The short answer is yes!

The UK government's Levelling Up agenda presents a unique opportunity for Combined Authorities to collaborate with the creative industries. Initiatives such as the Pride in Place mission illustrates the role of culture in supporting community pride and economic development.

Combined Authorities offer a unique opportunity for organisations to collaborate with local government and other stakeholders to access funding and resources. By aligning with the strategic priorities of Combined Authorities, cultural organisations can position themselves to secure support for their projects and initiatives.

Preparing for Funding Opportunities: Guidance for the Arts Sector

To be eligible for funding from Combined Authorities, cultural organisations must be proactive in preparing themselves and demonstrating their value to the community. This may involve:

  1. Articulating Impact: Clearly communicate the social, economic, and cultural impact of your organisation's work, highlighting its importance to the community and region.
  2. Building Partnerships: Forge strategic partnerships with local government, businesses, and community organisations to strengthen your funding applications and enhance your project's viability.
  3. Demonstrating Sustainability: Develop robust business models and financial plans that demonstrate the long-term sustainability of your organisation and its projects.
  4. Embracing Innovation: Explore innovative approaches to programming, audience engagement, and revenue generation to adapt to changing funding landscapes and maximise impact.
  5. Engaging with Combined Authorities: Proactively engage with Combined Authorities and other regional stakeholders to understand their funding priorities and explore potential opportunities for collaboration.

Embracing collaboration for a sustainable future

In the face of funding cuts and economic challenges, Combined Authorities offer a glimmer of hope for the cultural sector. By embracing these bodies as partners and advocates, we can navigate the complexities of funding and emerge stronger and more resilient. Together, we can harness the power of culture to inspire, innovate, and transform communities across the country.

Have you accessed Combined Authority funding yet? What advice would you pass onto your peers? Let us know on X @artsfundraising