Graham Wark: Cultural, leisure and library services are key to recovering from pandemic – HeraldScotland

IN the light of the ‘new normal’, these changing times of learning to live with Covid, we need to question what this means for cultural, leisure and library services and how can we take this truly unique opportunity to pause and assess what’s important.

Pre-pandemic, our sector, like all public services, faced pressure from funding reductions and lack of investment. My colleagues and I are passionate about public services, having spent our whole careers working in culture, libraries, leisure and education and we’re under no illusion that our post-pandemic future will be any less challenging than our past. As the US coach, Dave Hollis says: ‘In the rush to return to normal, let’s consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.’

By way of context, much of Scotland’s public cultural, leisure and library provision is now delivered through arms-length external organisations (ALEOs), set up as charities and established by local councils. These charities or trusts, operate mainly on what is referred to as a deficit payment model that means once the trust has calculated its expenditure (costs for staffing and services) and estimated income from entry fees, food and beverage sales, the local council funds the difference.

However, set this against significant decreases in local government funding in recent years and, at the same time, increasing demands from other services, particularly social care and education and you have a perfect storm. A storm which has, almost inevitably, led to our culture, leisure and library trusts facing corresponding cuts to their management fees.

Colleagues throughout Scotland have managed this process as creatively as we can by growing commercial income, reducing back-office functions and centralising services, developing partnerships and identifying new revenue streams, reducing opening hours and reluctantly increasing charges or introducing payments for previously free services and, as a last resort, closing facilities.

In our post-pandemic world, these demands are likely to continue to increase. Our experience so far of reopening services and facilities is that public participation and engagement habits have changed too. This is partly to do with concerns around returning to populated places such as sports centres, museums and libraries and partly to do with something we’ll call the ‘Joe Wicks effect’ – aka doing the same things but doing them very differently.

Research shows people are walking and cycling to stay active, have turned to online exercise classes from the comfort of their own homes and are embracing digital opportunities for reading, listening and other cultural experiences. Trusts across the country are telling us that, for the next few years at the very least, they anticipate lower income generation compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Some trusts are already planning which facilities will not re-open once all restrictions are lifted whilst, at the same time, also considering which facilities and services, currently open, may close to address the financial gap.

In many cases, these will be facilities and services which do not generate income or cost the most, possibly in communities that have been impacted hardest by the pandemic. Not only does this go against many trusts’ charitable aims and objectives, it hits at the heart of our communities, in the places we go to to create normality during these uncertain times.

The plea we make is for the Scottish Government to review the funding they distribute through councils to their trusts. The pandemic is affecting every aspect of publicly funded services – let’s make sure that it doesn’t wipe the culture, leisure and library sector off the map.

Those outwith the sector have to look at culture, leisure and library provision as a key tool to help with covid recovery rather than just as good things to have. Our sector has been operating emergency childcare provision for keyworkers’ children during lockdown; holiday camps and holiday hunger programmes; humanitarian aid or civil contingency plans through our community centres; staffing and facilities management for mass-vaccination and testing centres; as well as our usual work of getting and keeping people – especially the most vulnerable – active, socialising and healthy. Strategic leaders must work collaboratively with us as we recover our health, our communities, our economy. In our combined quest for the new normal, let’s get serious about how culture, leisure and library sectors support physical health and wellbeing and mental health, social cohesion and the economy.

So, this is a call to arms. A once in a lifetime opportunity. In the quest for the new normal, let’s not forget what’s important. Community. Collaboration. Cohesion. Together we can pivot the way cultural, leisure and library services are perceived, delivered and funded – for the benefit of Scotland’s people.

Graham Wark is chair of VOCAL