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NEWS: Budget brings boosts for theatre industry while challenges remain

As expected Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget has unveiled key commitments to help the theatre industry recover from the year-long economic effects of the Covid-19 induced lockdown.

Highlights for the sector from his speech in Parliament today include:

  • A £150 million Community Ownership Fund to enable organisations to take control of local assets including theatres at risk of closing
  • Extension of the furlough scheme until late September
  • Continuation of the reduction in VAT until September
  • Broader eligibility for the freelance SEISS scheme
  • Access to a new £7 million apprenticeship fund
  • The previously announced £300 million to aid arts venues in England with reopening

The Exchequer had yesterday disclosed an additional circa £400 million arts package, of which theatres will share three quarters with other cultural facilities while museums get the remainder.

It will aid the staggered reopening of venues, which begins after 17 May, when theatres can open with social distancing rules originally planned for late 2020. Subject to medical data, the next step of the reopening roadmap will see venues allowed to return to full capacity audiences from 21 June onwards.

The funding is a useful addition to the nearly £1.6 billion recovery fund for cultural sites already pledged by Downing Street.

The Community Fund meanwhile will be welcome news for many venues throughout England that were facing the prospect of permanent closure.

For theatre owners and production companies, extension of the furlough scheme will offer a greater chance of survival in the period between now and full reopening. From July onwards they will have to pick up the bill for 10% of their furloughed staff’s wages, increasing to 20% during August and September.

The inclusion of theatre professionals in the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) has been a running complaint in the industry, with unions and others saying too many were being excluded from it.

Extension of the scheme to those first qualifying as self employed in the 2019-2020 financial year will benefit some, though not all.

Cultural apprenticeships will also be eligible to benefit from a £7 million training fund for UK employers.

Continuation of the reduction in VAT for the period ending August (before an interim 12.5% rate applies until April 2022), a new loan recovery scheme and a nine month business rate discount of two thirds also suggest Sunak has heeded calls from the theatre industry and other sectors.

New benefits further down the theatre supply and value chain will bring indirect gains too: a hold on alcohol duty increases for two years will help bar earnings, while a range of concessions for the hospitality industry should stimulate more theatre-associated activity.

Responses so far include:

Julian Bird, CEO of SOLT and UK Theatre: “The 2021 budget contains the extension of many vital support mechanisms that have helped the performing arts industry through the pandemic, and it is wonderful that the Government recognises the value of our world-leading culture sector. The announcement of a further £300m for the Culture Recovery Fund, coupled with announcements on furlough, self-employed support, business rates and VAT remaining at a lower rate for hospitality and leisure businesses, is all hugely welcome and will help ensure our industry can reopen with additional financial security.

“The extension of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme to cover new entrants in the 19/20 tax year will help many in our sector, but we urge the Government to continue to look at the plight of other individuals who have fallen through the gaps of furlough and self-employed support.  In order to reopen, theatre and the performing arts continue to need insurance cover, and we call upon the Government to put this in place as for other sectors.”

Caroline Norbury MBE, CEO, Creative Industries Federation: “We welcome the emergency measures announced in today’s Budget, including the extension of support schemes to September, the inclusion of the ‘newly’ self-employed and the £408 million injection into arts and culture, which we and others have been calling for. These measures will provide relief to many in the UK’s creative industries, a sector that has been amongst the worst hit by the pandemic and that will be one of the latest to return to work. Greater flexibilities in the apprenticeship scheme are very welcome, as we seek to spread opportunity within the creative industries more widely, as is the six-month extension of the Film and TV Production Restart Scheme.

“As we look to the future, we know that the creative industries can power us out of recession, driving economic growth, creating jobs and making our communities happier, healthier places for everyone. It is therefore welcome to see creative industries highlighted as a priority in both government’s Plan for Growth and the Levelling Up Fund, recognising that our £116bn sector is a major industry that will unlock innovation and drive the future of the UK in the months and years to come. We know that attracting inward investment will be key to this. We have been calling for the expansion of Creative Industries tax reliefs and while we welcome that government is consulting on R&D tax reliefs, we keenly await the eligibility criteria for the super-deduction. It is vital that investment in our world-leading creative content is incentivised.

“It is important that as we recover, we do so in a way that does not leave people behind. Our recent survey of over 800 creative organisations and practitioners showed that freelancers, those outside of London and those reliant on audiences have been hit hardest. As venues plan for a summer reopening, it is disappointing that proposals to introduce government-backed insurance for live events have not been adopted, as this would provide the degree of certainty that is so desperately needed. There are also still thousands of people in our sector who are falling through the gaps. More than just support, we need urgent structural change to ensure freelancers – a vital part of our future workforce – have every opportunity to thrive.”

Deborah Annetts, ISM chief executive:

“Today’s Budget hits the right note for many musicians, with the Chancellor announcing a further £400m for the arts alongside the extension of support for those eligible for the self-employed scheme, furlough and the Universal Credit uplift. These are all essential, because thousands of our members have not had any work for a year and are waiting for venues to safely re-open. The Government must invest in the UK’s cultural industries until this crisis is over, including measures to help the estimated three million excluded.”

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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