A local authority that has taken arts to its heart


Jessica Harris is programme manager of NCVO’s Cultural Commissioning Programme. Jessica has commissioned and managed cultural programmes across arts, museums and libraries, and has also led on cultural policy during her career. She has worked in the independent arts sector, in local government and for national bodies, including MLA and Arts Council England.


As one of the Cultural Commissioning Programme’s pilots, I’m keen to share Kent County Council’s work on embedding arts and culture within its services.


The role of members has been central to Kent’s progress: Cllr Mike Hill, who has arts and culture within his portfolio, is committed to embedding arts into the council’s core business, from economic regeneration to adult social care. He also wants to help Kent’s cultural organisations develop their resilience. For him, this means helping them secure funding by participating in delivery of council contracts.

However, Kent’s progress is not just dependent on political lead – creative economies manager, Tony Witton, and his team have been laying the ground-work for new partnerships.

Responding to new agendas

For Tony, partnerships with local arts and cultural organisations enable services such as public health, adult social care and children’s services to deliver better outcomes. Kent’s outcomes framework now includes using cultural providers as a way of achieving health, wellbeing and social outcomes, as well as referencing participation in culture in its own right. And the council has supported cultural organisations to develop skills and know-how to respond to these new agendas.

The cultural sector is currently involved in delivery of Kent’s community mental health service and its waste management service. We are familiar with the notion of the arts supporting health and wellbeing by working holistically with people and communities. However, the link-up with services such as waste management is more surprising.

Where people are concerned, commissioners want to ensure they stay well for longer. Where waste is concerned, commissioners are keen to minimise it in the first place. Here, arts providers come into their own, suggesting ways of engaging with people to help raise awareness and change behaviours.

Innovatory power of the arts

Roger Wilkin, director of highways and waste management at Kent County Council, describes his first encounter with the idea that he might partner with the arts as ‘a kind of epiphany’.

I spent the first half hour (at an internal meeting on cultural commissioning) wondering why I was there, and then realised I did have a role since one of the things my team does is spend a lot of council money.

He began to consider how the cultural sector might help with the challenges he faces and at the same time, how he could secure added social value for the county (as required by the Social Value Act).

One such challenge is to reduce the amount of waste produced – and the idea of bringing in the arts sector to engage local communities using creativity emerged. Contract documentation was written to encourage potential providers to partner with arts organisations and, whilst the project being developed by the appointed provider is relatively small, Roger sees this as a starting point for future contracts.

Harnessing young people’s creativity

From this initial step, the idea of ‘Circular Kent’ was born, with the aim of supporting young people’s creative ideas to develop sustainable products and services. Encompassing training and support for less advantaged young people, plans for sustainable tourism and heritage, and support for creative start-ups, Kent’s waste management provider has agreed to be the industry partner for ‘Circular Kent’.

Challenges faced by Kent commissioners are common to other local authorities and health bodies. They include perceptions (not necessarily well-founded) of constraints of procurement processes, appropriate means of gathering evidence and evaluation, and limited capacity to adopt innovative approaches. Equally, the cultural sector faces challenges in adapting its business models and in growing the skills and capacity needed for this new landscape.

However Kent’s progress is evidenced not only by these examples but also from the fact that it is well down the road to integrating arts and cultural providers in its services for older people, for people with dementia and its children’s services.

If you’re a cultural organisation or a commissioner interested in opportunities for cultural commissioning, take a look at this toolkit on cultural commissioning, produced by Kent County Council, Royal Opera House Bridge and Artswork – and visit the Cultural Commissioning Programme for resources and guidance.


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