On the 5th May 2011 I failed in my attempt to be re-elected to Luton Borough Council after eight years serving as an elected councillor. This article is part of a series of posts where I attempt to process what those eight years have meant for myself by asking the question “what did I achieve?” in that time.
The final achievement I want to highlight in this series of posts is the one that means the most to me. This is the work that I did to create Luton Culture.
In short this is the story of the actions I took as an Executive member on the Council to both protect and enhance Luton’s cultural services, against a background of financial pressure on the Council, by the transfer of the museum, arts and library services into an independent charity.
In common with many other local authorities Luton Borough Council had already gone through the process of transferring the operation of its swimming pools and leisure centres in to a ‘not for profit’ sports and leisure trust. It had set up Active Luton which had begun operating in November 2005.
The creation of Active Luton had also resulted in substantial savings to the Council’s revenue budget by switching the source of the funding to London Luton Airport Limited, the company which receives the profits from the Council’s ownership of London Luton Airport. By funding an independent charitable trust in this way Gift Aid can be claimed on what is paid to the trust and this is a substantial amount of extra revenue which results in a saving to the council.
The fact that this model of transferring cultural and leisure services from the Council into an independent trust had been successfully tried in Luton it was natural for the Council to consider whether the same model could be applied to other services.
So in February 2006, as a result of the budget process, it was proposed to create a museums trust to manage Luton’s two museums and achieve savings as result.
This is when I enter the picture. I had been a member of the Council’s Executive as part of the minority Liberal Democrat administration that has run the Council since 2004. My portfolio up until that point had been mainly environmental and transport issues but after the annual council in May 2006 I was asked to take on additional responsibility for cultural, leisure and community services.
Some of the earliest discussions I had in this new role were about establishing the proposed museums trust. I found no resistance from the council officers to the principle of transferring these kinds of services into an independent trust but they were understandably worried about the practical implications. After starting to work on developing the detailed proposals for how to create the museums trust they had begun to question its viability.
At the root of their concerns was a question of size.
There was considerable doubt whether an independent trust created from the museums service alone was sustainable. In order to operate it would need to be able to perform new functions, develop new governance structures, and have a new level of strategic leadership. It was felt that this service on its own would not have the critical mass to take on these tasks.
For me as the portfolio-holder it soon became obvious that I had a choice between abandoning the idea altogether, and seeking to find the budgeted for savings from elsewhere, or to look at expanding the number of services transferred in to the new trust. As we examined the options the idea of creating a more broadly based “cultural services trust” began to form.
Being involved in the early stages of the development of this idea were for me one of the best examples I have come across of a good working relationship between an elected local politician and a professional local government officer leading to positive change. Here I want to pay tribute to the work of Peter Jones who at the time was the Head of Service for Leisure and Community at Luton Borough Council. Peter was responsible for a significant amount of the heavy lifting involved in getting the trust off the ground and ensuring the transfer went smoothly. His role was also crucial in those early discussions.
I met regularly with Peter in the last half of 2006 to talk through our ideas of how a cultural services trust would work. Although at that point I had only been a councillor for three years, and an executive member for just two, I had already become frustrated by many aspects of how local government worked and the restrictions often placed on an elected member’s ability to achieve change. So I was immediately attracted to what was becoming a very bold initiative.
During these discussions I became conscious that if I wanted to protect these services, which I very much did, this was probably the best, possibly the only realistic, way of doing so. At the same time as working on this idea I was involved in making painful cuts in other areas of the council. This was unpleasant experience and certainly not what I had become involved in local politics to do. So the possibility of working on a project that would throw a shield around services that I and local people valued was something I wanted to grasp. So I quickly became very excited by the possibilities that establishing a broadly based cultural services trust would open up.
My enthusiasm and ambitions for the idea of this trust was nicely complemented, and at times necessarily reined in by, the cool headed professionalism of Peter Jones. Understandably as the Head of Service his concerns were to manage his staff’s workload, to maintain morale within the services, ensure the continuity of existing service provision, and to meet his obligations to members. He saw many of the potential pitfalls and problems and worked hard to ensure they were avoided. I think his diplomatic skills were often tested too.
Together we established the idea of a cultural services trust as a valid and achievable aim for the Council to pursue. We also developed what was to become our mantra – our desire to protect and enhance services.
It is obvious that a key driver here was the need to find financial savings. It certainly didn’t go unnoticed that widening the scope of the proposed trust beyond museums alone would mean that the council would be able to achieve even greater savings. But we both felt very strongly that this development couldn’t be just about saving money alone.
In considering the future of the Council’s cultural services I was conscious that the majority of them were discretionary provision. The Council had no legal obligation to provide them. So it would be these services that would be at greater risk of being cut when money needed to be found. In the prevailing climate it was almost inevitable that because of their discretionary nature the amount spent on these services would decline over time. If they remained as part of the Council proposals for individual cuts to what they did would continue to be thrown into the mix during each budget round. Each year parts of these services would be put at risk and the likelihood was that over time they would be seriously diminished.
I couldn’t do much about the background picture of ever tightening financial circumstances. Yet I believed that by changing the structure through which these services were delivered we could find a way to help to protect them from the “salami slicing” process of a saving here and a saving there each year until there was nothing left. Trust status was a method we could use to protect them as much as possible from that inevitability.
However, I was also convinced that if this was a purely defensive measure then it would not succeed.
Firstly any new organisation we set up had to have genuine independence. If this was conceived solely as a mechanism for saving money then, not only would we be likely to fall foul of charity law, but the new organisation would not be able to function properly. It could potentially lead to an even worse outcome for the services involved. We may be able to find a way to protect the funding streams but that alone would not secure a long term future. We had to do it in a way that enhanced these services ability to develop and encourage the theme to move towards a sustainable model for their continuation.
We wanted the move to an independent trust to open the potential for making use of other sources of funding. We also wanted to maintain a public service ethos for these services but at the same time to give them greater freedom of movement outside of the constraints of a local government environment. Above all this was an opportunity for these services to find a way to do things differently, not only more efficiently but we hoped more effectively.
From this we developed our principle of ‘protect and enhance’ that underpinned everything we were trying to achieve with this process.
I had become certain that the creation of a broadly based cultural services trust was very much the right thing to do to safeguard the future of the arts, museums and library services in Luton. I also started to feel passionately that this was an opportunity to create something of great and lasting value to the community of the town. But I was also aware that it was a very bold and radical move. I doubted whether other councillors would share my level of certainty and enthusiasm. It was up to me to be an advocate for the idea at a political level and to work to push it through.
First I had to convince my fellow Executive members and my colleagues in the Liberal Democrat council group of the merits of the idea. I was also concerned about the attitude that the main Labour opposition group would take to the proposal. The Council had only moved to establish Active Luton after a long and drawn out process of consultation and all-party discussion within the Council. While I wanted to establish as much consensus as possible the circumstances didn’t really allow for a similar process. So I was aware that if the proposal met significant opposition it would likely fail.
Fortunately, the general reaction the idea received from members across the council was cautious scepticism rather than any outright hostility. They were willing to explore the idea and be open to being convinced. I secured agreement from the Liberal Democrat group to develop the proposal further.
The Executive made the decision in December 2006 to confirm the creation of the museums trust but crucially it also decided to investigate the feasibility of transferring other cultural services into that organisation. A final decision was to come to a future meeting of the Executive.
We were now exploring the possibility of creating a museums trust as an initial vehicle and then growing it over time by the phased transfer of further services. However, we soon realised that there were further practical problems with this approach. It had become clear that an even more radical move was necessary if we wanted the transfer to work. So the approach was changed to one where the transfer of the museums service would be delayed and the transfer of the other services speeded up. This would result in the transfer of the museums, arts and library services at the same time to a single cultural services trust.
These proposals were consulted on with staff and discussed with members. They were also taken to the relevant scrutiny committee in March 2007. In April 2007 the Executive at my recommendation made the decision to transfer the museums, arts and library services into a separate organisation. It asked the council’s officers to continue with their work on the detailed commissioning arrangements and report to a further executive for final approval.
A new set of local elections were held in May 2007 that ended the Liberal Democrat administration and returned a Labour majority. The plans to develop a cultural services trust had come a long way since the initial discussions in the summer of the previous year but the final decision had yet to be taken. If they wanted to the new Labour administration could call a halt to the whole thing. It was frustrating to be sat on the opposition benches knowing that the fate of a project that I had put some much into and care so deeply about was in the hands of others.
I am sure they looked carefully at the details and I imagine that the financial arguments in favour were persuasive. But they could have easily felt that these services naturally belonged as part of the Council and seen this project to externalise them as a dangerous step too far. So it is to the Labour group’s credit that they saw the merits of going ahead with the cultural services trust and allowed the process to continue.
The Executive took its final decision to go ahead in February 2008. Not being in at the finish was also frustrating. They were some aspects of how the Labour administration chose to set up the trust that I would have done slightly differently. But those are really just minor irritations. The key thing was that the project was going to make it from those initial discussions I had had with Peter Jones to a reality.
The model chosen for the new organisation was a Not for Profit Distributing Organisation (NPDO). An NPDO is a form of business structure which can operate at a profit but is required to reinvest those profits into services or growth. It was thought that this model would give the new organisation the right level of flexibility. The NPDO vehicle was to be Luton Cultural Services Trust Limited, a company limited by guarantee which also had charitable status. A subsidiary trading company through which the Trust’s purely commercial activities could take place was also established.
Luton Cultural Services Trust came into existence on the 1st March 2008.
Since then we’ve renamed it to the friendlier Luton Culture and it has firmly established itself as an independent charity. I think it is clear that the objective of protecting and enhancing the museums, libraries and arts services in Luton have been achieved by this move. While Luton Culture is by no means insulated from the impact of public spending cuts we are now facing, these important and valued services are in a much stronger position as part of an independent charitable trust than they would be otherwise.
I am extremely proud of my role in its creation and have continued my involvement as a member of the Board of Trustees. If I could claim to have done only one thing of value during my eight years as a councillor this is the one I would choose.