Is this really the end of austerity?
Rebecca Atkinson, 12.09.2019
The government's spending plans got lost in the Brexit chaos, but what do they mean for museums?
Amid last week’s political chaos in Parliament over prime minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans, the government released its 2019 spending round for 2020-21.
In it, the chancellor of the exchequer Sajid Javid promised the largest increase in public spending in more than 15 years.
A fall in the annual spending deficit below its 2% target means no government department will experience real-term cuts in funding next year – signalling the “end of austerity”, Javid said.
Javid pegged the round as the “fastest planned” increase in day-to-day departmental spending for 15 years – “fast-tracked so departments can focus on delivering Brexit”.
Health and social care were the biggest winners, with a 3.1% or £138.9bn rise in funding, of which NHS England will get the lion’s share.
Closer to the bottom of the list is the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which will see a 4.1% increase in real terms to its budget.
The settlement includes more than £300m to support national museums and galleries and more than £500m for Arts Council England (ACE) and Sport England.
A spokeswoman for ACE says it is waiting to receive confirmation of its 2020-21 settlement from DCMS, but that this is likely to be in line with inflation.
“We will continue to make the case to government for the crucial role that arts and culture has in strengthening local economies, in unlocking opportunities for young people and bringing communities together, and as our nation’s calling card across the world,” she adds.
The increase in public spending comes after nearly a decade of budget cuts, initially introduced by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010, and continued after the 2015 election under the leadership of David Cameron and Theresa May.
“This spending review feels a bit smoke and mirrors – on the surface we welcome the extra 4.1% for DCMS but that hardly makes up for cuts of 12% to the department over the past 10 years,” says Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association (MA).
“In the same period budgets for devolved administrations have been drastically reduced; in Wales by 21% and Scotland by 37%, while local government has been cut by a staggering 77%.”
Since taking over the top political job in July, Johnson has promised more money for public services such as the NHS.
However, with Brexit plans still very much hanging in the balance and a general election on the horizon, the future for the entire UK remains uncertain.
“The fact that this is only a one-year spending review means the focus is really on what happens at next year's review - especially if it's a post-Brexit, post-election review with huge spending cuts,” says Alistair Brown, the MA’s policy officer.
And Heal says: “A post-Brexit spending review – ‘deal or no deal?’ – could mean further hardship for museums and will undermine the fantastic work that they do with their communities and looking after our local and national collections.
“The MA is arguing for more investment in museums across the UK; at a time of national uncertainty and when society is divided and government in turmoil, museums can provide civic spaces for reflection, discussion and debate. To do this they need continued investment and that’s what we will be making the case for in all nations and regions of the UK.”
Parliament has been prorogued until 14 October, which ends all current legislation under discussion. Johnson has said the UK will leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal. However, his opponents have said they will push for a general election as soon as they are sure a no-deal Brexit has been prevented.