Culture sector cautiously welcomes budget but say further support needed

The chancellor’s budget was cautiously welcomed by the culture sector but industry figures said it lacks detail in key areas and does not do enough to support those who have missed out on government support, such as freelancers.

The extra £300m investment into the £1.57bn culture recovery fund was praised, as was the continuation of the lower VAT rate until September, but lack of a more substantial package for freelancers was criticised as “insulting”.

Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, said the extension of furlough, self-employed support, business rates and VAT remaining at 5%, was hugely welcome and would “help ensure our industry can reopen with additional financial security”.

Bird also welcomed the extension of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) to cover those filing in the 2019/20 tax year, but urged the government to “look at the plight of other individuals who have fallen through the gaps of furlough and self-employed support”.

Philippa Childs, head of the creative industry union Bectu, said that the government had “grossly exaggerated” the difference the inclusion of the newly self-employed in the SEISS scheme would make.

She said: “The changes do nothing to address the £50k cliff edge, fails to address the cut-off dates for accessing the schemes and in a final insult – the scheme will be winding up two months before the end of the furlough scheme.”

Sir Cameron Mackintosh, best known for his West End productions of Cats and Les Miserables, said theatre producers would welcome any help the government is able to give but wanted more detail as he aims toward reopening on 17 May.

He said: “The next crucial signpost for us in the commercial theatre will be early April when the government hopes to confirm the 12 April as their next step, leading to socially distanced shows being able to return on 17 May 2021.”

Others were critical the lack of a government-backed insurance plan for music venues and festivals.

There had been reports that the government is considering giving grants to event organisers affected by Covid-19, and underwriting an insurance scheme for major festivals, but the Treasury is reportedly concerned about the cost.

The digital, culture, media and sport committee chair Julian Knight MP said it was “greatly disappointing” that the government has not backed cancellation insurance schemes for festivals, which he said “would provide a safety net should organisers need to cancel plans and enable more to go ahead with confidence this summer”.

Nathan Clark, the owner of the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds, said he was buoyant about the future and the government support, but added the lack of insurance cover in the budget could impact smaller venues around the country.

Clark said: “If festivals can’t go ahead securely without insurance then we’re going to lose the warm-up and auxiliary gigs that we live on. It’s a connected ecosphere.”

Bird also said theatres were also calling for insurance cover in order to be able to reopen. “We call upon the government to put this in place as for other sectors,” he added.

The University of Exeter professor Pascale Aebischer, who is leading research into how theatre has adapted to the pandemic in the past year, said that the budget meant that “key venues” were being protected at the expense of freelance staff.

He said that institutions may well survive into the summer, but “they will struggle to reopen and produce the high-quality work which, in 2019, contributed an estimated £10.8bn to the UK economy,” without more support for freelancers.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, said: “It’s such a relief we can look ahead now so this funding is not just about survival but for planning and preparing for the reopening of theatres, galleries and gigs.”


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