£1.5bn government lifeline for venues

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Theatres have been unable to open since the UK went into lockdown in March

The government has unveiled a £1.57bn support package to help protect the futures of UK theatres, galleries, museums and other cultural venues.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told BBC Breakfast new grants and loans aim to preserve “crown jewels” in the UK’s art sector as well as local venues.

It follows several weeks of pressure, with industry leaders warning that many venues were on the brink of collapse.

Independent cinemas, heritage sites and music venues will also be eligible.

Guidance for a phased return of the performing arts, starting with performances behind closed doors and rehearsals, is expected to be published by the government shortly.

Mr Dowden said the package is all “new money” and has two broad aims – to preserve “crown jewel” venues like the Royal Albert Hall and national galleries, while also helping local institutions across the UK.

He said institutions applying for the new grants and loans through industry bodies would have to prove how they contribute to wider economic growth.

A string of theatres have announced plans to make staff redundant in recent weeks, after being closed since the coronavirus pandemic took hold earlier this year.

Adrian Vinken, the chief executive of the Theatre Royal in Plymouth told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was “impossible to say” if the announcement would be enough to prevent up to 100 job losses there until more detail is released.

The announcement of the new funding comes just two days after theatres across the UK were covered in colourful messages of support.

The rescue package has been warmly welcomed by many arts leaders, some of whom said they thought it to be at the upper end of what had been hoped for. The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, who has been under pressure from the arts and heritage sector to deliver a meaningful funding solution to a crisis brought about by Covid-19, feels vindicated that his behind-closed-doors approach to negotiations with the Treasury has paid off.

As always, the devil will be in the detail. The government has not specified how the money will be divided between competing art forms or regions, nor how the application process will work. There will be winners and losers.

And then there’s the elephant in the auditorium: when will the rules around social distancing in performing arts venues be relaxed to allow the show to go on?

Many theatre producers are baffled by what they see as ‘one rule for them, and one rule for us’, approach by government, particularly when it comes to travel. Why is it OK for people to sit side-by-side on a train or plane for hours but not in a theatre, which they argue is a much more controllable environment? As far as they are concerned, that is the billion dollar question.

How will the money be spent?

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The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester was among those wrapped in messages of support

The £1.15bn support pot for cultural organisations in England is made up of £880m in grants and £270m of repayable loans. The government said the loans would be “issued on generous terms”.

Funding will also go to the devolved administrations – £33m to Northern Ireland, £97m to Scotland and £59m to Wales.

A further £100m will be earmarked for national cultural institutions in England and the English Heritage Trust.

There will also be £120m to restart construction on cultural infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England that were paused due to the pandemic.

The government said decisions on who will get the funding would be made “alongside expert independent figures from the sector”.

What else has the government said?

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson pictured earlier this week in Downing Street

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the money “will help safeguard the sector for future generations, ensuring arts groups and venues across the UK can stay afloat”.

The government described the package as “the biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture”.

Mr Dowden said arts and culture were “the soul of our nation”. He said: “They make our country great and are the lynchpin of our world-beating and fast growing creative industries.”

However, the Conservative chairman of the House of Commons culture select committee, Julian Knight MP, said more action would be needed.

“This money is welcome and should take some out of the danger zone, if only temporarily,” he said. “But to secure their long-term future there needs to be a targeted sector deal, possibly involving more generous tax breaks.”

Labour’s shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens said while she welcomed the “much-needed” package, it was “too little, too late” for many. She urged the government to act quickly to help organisations “currently teetering on the brink”.

What has the industry reaction been?

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Arts Council England, the Royal Opera House, the Music Venue Trust, the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre were among those to welcome the funding.

Arts Council chairman Sir Nicholas Serota told BBC News the funding was “a very good result”.

He said: “Now it’s up to the arts organisations and the Arts Council to make best use of this money and bring the arts back into communities across the county. This announcement gives us the tools to help build a recovery.”

Music Venue Trust chief executive Mark Davyd said it “warmly welcomes this unprecedented intervention into Britain’s world class live music scene”.

He added: “This fund provides the opportunity to stabilise and protect our vibrant and vital network of venues and gives us the time we need to create a plan to safely reopen live music.”

Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, said it “hugely welcomed” the funding.

The chief executives of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris and Lisa Burger, said they “feel very positive that this major investment will reach and sustain the vital talent and infrastructure”.

Simon Rattle, director of the London Symphony Orchestra, called for the money to be “distributed as fast as possible”.

Philippa Childs, head of the Bectu union which supports workers across the media and entertainment industry, said the support package was overdue.

She added: “At long last the government have woken up to our warnings and those of the whole creative sector, that without support, we stood to lose a huge amount of our world-beating creative industries.

“We will now be scrutinising the details of this package to make sure it lives up to the real needs of our sector.”

Julia Fawcett, chief executive of the Lowry in Salford, said: “The announcement of £1.57bn of emergency investment in the UK’s culture sector is welcome news, but we are fast running out of time.

“This lifeline will come too late for some organisations who have already been forced to close their doors for good or made valued employees redundant.

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