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Art for Art’s Sake

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Reading coverage of the V&A opening at the weekend I was once again struck by the often extravagant claims made for the local economic impact of such projects and how this contrasts with the available evidence we have on their impact.

We summarised the available evaluation evidence in our sports and culture evidence review (note: nearly all the evidence came from sporting events/facilities).

Here’s what we concluded:

“[…] policymakers should have realistic expectations of the impact of major events or new facilities. There may be many good reasons to support these, but the evidence suggests that lasting economic impacts are minimal.

Permanent facilities may be more likely to produce economic benefits, particularly […] increased house prices, but the benefits are usually highly localised. From a regeneration perspective, policymakers should consider how these facilities fit into a broader strategy, and they should not be relied on alone for job-creation.”

Writing on our blog in 2017, Paul Swinney spelled out some of the messages from our evidence review when talking about the likely local economic impact of Hull’s designation as UK City of Culture.

Rather than re-iterate those points, I thought it might be useful to reflect a little more on the available evidence that the post, and our review, used to reach their conclusions.

One of the challenges that we often get for our evidence reviews is that we set the evidence hurdle too high. For lots of policy areas, I don’t agree, but I think there’s a case to be made that looking for suitable comparator (control) groups is particularly hard for some of these sporting and cultural interventions. So, late last year I asked the team to dig around and find evaluations of UK sporting events and facilities that met a weaker evidence standard (the one we use for our toolkits – for those of you who are interested).

We never published the result of that trawl because, as it turned out, our evidence standards weren’t the problem. Instead, a clear pattern emerged that most of the new studies we found modelled the possible impact of such events and facilities before they were in place (‘ex-ante’). But precious few evaluations look at the actual impacts after the event (‘ex-post’). Unfortunately, it seems there’s quite a big industry out there, which provides such ex-ante numbers. And the political economy is such that policymakers are, perhaps understandably, much more interested in figuring out ways to justify expenditure on these projects, rather than convincingly assessing the claims made for their impact.

We continue to make the case that good local economic policymaking requires us to try to address this imbalance and to properly understand the local economic impacts. In the meantime, my view continues to be that we should invest in sports and culture for its intrinsic value while taking the economic impact projections with a healthy pinch of salt.