On Wednesday I had a telephone interview with Roy Clare, Chief Executive of MLA, to explore the implications of the restructuring of MLA and the probable demise of MLA Yorkshire.
Roy began by stating that everything that he was doing was customer focused and that his concern was with the users and audiences, not with the structures. He said that there was a need to do more joining up, not only between libraries, museums and archives but between the MLA, the Arts Council and the Sport England. There must be an end to compartmentalism between these different Government bodies.
A growing trend in Government policy was the increasing importance of local government and the role of regional non-departmental public bodies. These bodies are competing with each other for the ear of local authorities and regional development agencies, and there needed to be a fundamental change in how things were done. It was the intention to have more collaboration and a Director of Programme in each region.
Roy pointed out that the old MLA structure had been complex and that the available funding had to be split into a number of separate pots to support the regional MLAs. However, he insisted that MLA is not walking away from the regions and that it will maintain a strong leadership through three areas:
- A focus on connecting with local authorities. This will include ensuring that culture is reflected in all Local Area Agreements.
- Connecting with the Regional Development Agencies. Working jointly with other agencies MLA will promote the core role of culture, art and sport for regional regeneration and development.
- Promoting learning society capacity in the regions. The concept of the learning society for promoting learning and skills development was central to regional development and the new MLA will be working on this.
Roy explained how MLA would operate in the regions. A Regional Transition Working Group has been set up which will be led by Sam Bestwick of MLA East Midlands to oversee the transition and Roy did not want to speculate on the final structure. Roy expects to have high calibre people in the regions. They would not operate autonomously but would consult with an advisory group that would work with other non-departmental public bodies. The reduction in the overall MLA headcount would mean that more funding would be available in the future for organisations to bid for to support projects.
I asked Roy if the MLA would be looking to work with consortia of libraries, museums and archives in each region. He said that the Yorkshire Regional Museums Hub was a good model of the type of organisation that was needed and that he was keen to encourage closer collaboration within and across domains. The staff of the new MLA would not be domain specialists and libraries, museums and archives should work together. Roy identified two upcoming events; the new comprehensive spending review and the next general election. For both of these it was essential that culture was high on the agenda and that we all had to stand together to achieve this.
Finally Roy said that we owe a great debt to Annie Mauger, John Tarrant and all the staff of MLA Yorkshire for their work. The architecture has now changed and bodies like MLA need to change because of this.
Roy Claire has offered an explanation and justification of the changes at MLA. Few will disagree with his message that the cultural sector as a whole needs to get its act together and promote itself as a force for regional regeneration. This will require people of exceptionally high calibre who can lobby the decision makers. They will need to understand the particular characteristics and needs of each domain and at the same time be able to meld this into a vision of what we can offer the population of our region. His support for regional consortia as partners in this process is to be welcomed and it is significant that he has highlighted the Yorkshire Hubs from the museums domain as a model of good practice.
What is missing in Yorkshire is any framework for libraries to work together and with other domains. Clearly the Yorkshire Hubs model needs to be replicated for the libraries domain. The role of MLA Yorkshire was limited but it did achieve some things. The Libraries are Good for Business project which looked at business information provision across the region is a good example. This research could only have been commissioned by a regional body and it demonstrated the difficulties of delivering a regional service through separate library services. MLAY did a good job of promoting the value of libraries with Yorkshire Forward, but at the end of the day we were unable to offer the region an integrated business information service or even a robust model for co-operation at a regional level. (This example also shows that although libraries and culture overlap there is not an exact fit). Roy sees MLA working with the Arts Council and Sport England to promote our role with the regional development agencies but the RDAs will be asking how we can deliver a co-ordinated service and that will prove difficult without a regional framework.