Liaising with local government

If and when you and your colleagues involved in a music group think of local government as a source of assistance, how do you think of this assistance? Do you consider your local authority as a potential partner in jointly planning a community event which will in some way contribute to the quality of life for those involved? Or do you think of local government as a cash cow who may, if you are lucky, pass you a small grant to defray some of your costs?

The information which follows takes as its premise that the grants which used to be fairly widely available are being phased out and that local authorities are now unlikely – as well as unable financially – to be able to continue this practice. However, because no two local authorities operate in the same way it is very difficult to give practical advice on approaching any specific authority. Rather, it is hoped that this brief guide will provoke some thoughts amongst members of your Committee and will encourage you to think about ways you might work more closely with your local authority. It cannot offer you a defined strategy, but it can give you some hints on the first steps.

General background

The pattern of local authorities in Britain varies considerably. In Scotland, there are now 32 unitary authorities which deal with the full range of local government functions. In England and Wales there is a mixed picture: in some areas, there is a unitary authority and in others, the two-tier arrangement with District and County Councils remaining. There are also differences in the large cities and more possible changes on the way with developments such as the election of additional executive Mayors similarly to London.

What is the same in all local authorities is the role of locally elected politicians and the officers who work within the Councils? Generally, the politicians set policy and the officers carry these policies out, but the split between policy and operations is often blurred and it is necessary to do some research – perhaps by studying the local press carefully – before reaching any conclusions as to how a particular council works.

As an example, each local authority will have a scheme of delegation which details who makes the decisions in each area. In some authorities decisions on local grants will be taken by officials – and at varying levels of seniority. In others, the same decisions may well be taken by the elected members. Once again, if you have any doubts a simple question should be asked of someone in the Council – and if you do not know who to approach then you should speak to someone who deals with servicing Committees. Because members of the public rarely “bother” them, they are usually only too pleased to look up the scheme of delegation and give you the answer!

There is generally no statutory duty which requires a local authority to provide arts facilities in the same way that there is for, say, education and social services. The starting point for any music group wanting to find out about how to approach their local authority is to obtain some sort of guide telling you the departmental structure and what each department covers. Most councils do now publish a guide to their services and it should, therefore, be relatively easy to find out who does what. But what should your starting point be? The following section provides some ideas on this.

Area of interest

You need to think, as a music group, about what your role is and what position you occupy in the local community. Often this will depend on where you operate: in a rural setting, in a small town, in a large city. Obviously, there are major differences about how your activities affect other people and to what extent there are other voluntary arts groups in your area. For many music groups it may be difficult to articulate your role – so you perform two concerts a year in a local Church to audiences of around 300 or so – what can this mean to the local community?

In order to think creatively about what you do, you need to think about the benefits of performing and promoting music – what “added value” does this provide?

In the Arts Policy adopted by Fife Council, for example, the arts and heritage are regarded as central to improving our quality of life through opportunities for participation; opportunities for involvement; fostering a sense of place and identity; offering the excitement of risk; and offering the exploration of the unknown. This statement should give you a starting point for thinking about what you do and who benefits from this. Your Council may have similar documents which should be available in your local library – or those in the library should be able to point you in the right direction.

In any music group there will either be people from a range of occupations and backgrounds who get different things from their membership (a social night out, enjoyment of familiar music, therapy from the stresses of everyday life, improving knowledge of more unusual music, a chance to perform – the list goes on); or they may be people with very similar backgrounds in which case an approach may be to extend membership to the people not currently attracted.

Having carried out some preliminary analysis – and a discussion at a Committee meeting followed by some astute questioning of your members should assist with this – you should then be looking at your Council’s policies.

Your council’s policies

As already indicated, your Council is unlikely to have a policy which encourages amateur groups to apply for small grants. What they are much more likely to have is a policy to support the voluntary sector; to enable adult training, to assist with community projects, to encourage community participation in decision making.

This is the age of participation, and the Government’s idea of Councils requiring to demonstrate “Best Value” in all they do depends on involvement by local people. Yet arts organisations, especially from the voluntary sector, are notoriously backward in recognising the advantages of such involvement.

Looking again at Fife Council’s Policy there is a section specifically on the voluntary sector which has as its aim releasing the sector’s potential. It seeks to achieve this by developing forums which support and maintain links with the voluntary sector; investigating mechanisms at a local level to develop and maintain networking; identifying training needs and establishing workshops and seminars; encouraging inter-artform events; and raising awareness of funding opportunities and encouraging applications. This should give you several ideas about your own Council. Does it have any statement of intent or policy which mirrors this? Are there areas of deprivation where arts activities could help in the regeneration of the area?

So far we have not mentioned the area of music at schools. In many areas of the UK there is some concern about this, and while local authorities sometimes do not have the same influence they once had because of local management of schools they remain influential in terms of overall policy and direction. In thinking of ways in which to influence and gain support from your local authority, therefore, you should investigate what its stance is on issues such as instrumental tuition, school choirs and bands, pupils taking part in joint projects with local groups, and so on. Some groups have already developed strong links with schools, either directly or through the local authority, and more information on some of these is available through the relevant “How To…” guides from Making Music.

In finding out about your Council’s policies you should also try to find out how the decision-making process works. How often do Committees meet, and who in the Council is best placed to help you? But there is no point in doing this if you haven’t worked out your approach, where you need help, what your idea is.

If you haven’t any members under the age of 40; if nobody other than your members’ friends and relations come to concerts; if there are no apparently suitable venues in which to perform – these are all areas where most councils should now at least try to offer advice if you show yourselves willing to change and develop.

Help! I can’t get my head around all this…

If you have reached this stage it hopefully means you are committed to improving what your group does and in working with your local authority to effect that improvement. So don’t be put off, and don’t think that all of this sounds too forbidding or not relevant to what you do. Most Councils should have a sympathetic arts officer, or community development worker, or education liaison officer part of whose job it should be to offer you assistance. Your greatest challenge may actually be in finding this person!

But if you fail to make any headway then contact us to see if we can offer further advice. Remember, too, that some of the schemes we run encourage and reward projects and partnerships which you can enter into with your local authority. In the past several groups have gained Innovation Awards for such projects: in England, The Music Experience awards also included such partnerships. At the very least we should be able to give you some advice and reassurance – we might also be able to help you think up a new angle if your local authority is intractable.

You may feel reading this guidance that it paints an over-optimistic view of local authorities. It will, unfortunately, be the case that some local authorities appear totally unsympathetic and regard the music we perform or promote as elitist and middle class – words regarded as politically unwise. If this is the case with you, you must not fall into the trap of confirming their prejudices: there are enough ideas in this guidance to give you the different angle which your local authority should respond to. Your main weapon is your enthusiasm for what you do and your commitment to live music. Use this weapon positively!


We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music does not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.