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Phil Willmott

MPs Join Calls For Immediate Government Action to Save UK Theatre

The London Coliseum UK Prime Minister hasn’t paid much attention to the views of theatre workers and audience members asking for a bail out for British Theatre.

Maybe he’ll take notice of more than 150 MPs and peers who, in an open letter on June 11, have also called for government action to safeguard the theatre industry during the Covid-19 crisis.

It’s a frank, insightful document which tell us much about the current situation and what we could and should expect to happen. So if you’d like to study it in full here’s the full letter without further comment from me - but I’ve emphasised the key points in bold type if you’re after a swift digest of what’s being said.

Dear Prime Minister

While we know you are considering how best to protect and support many areas of the economy, this letter summarises the current and future impact of Covid-19 on performing arts businesses around the UK and calls on you and your teams in DCMS, Treasury and BEIS to take action on what is needed immediately; and over the coming months to rescue the sector and allow theatre to contribute to the future success of the UK.

British theatre (from drama to musical theatre to opera to dance) is a world-class cultural and economic force with British theatrical productions filling cultural venues and theatres from Broadway to Beijing.

From small studios to big-budget stages, theatre and the performing arts are part of the fabric of British life. Towns, villages and cities the breadth of the UK have and use theatres for more than seeing a show – they are spaces for many different groups in community to come together to learn, socialise and create.

Theatre’s workforce of 290,000 people includes 70% who are self-employed and move freely between scales and sectors. Its people – from actors to costumiers, technicians to producers – are the gold standard, often developing into world leaders in TV, film and digital arts.

The success of UK theatre relies on a complex ecosystem comprising of three main pillars (all pillars include both venues and production companies):

As you know, the creative industries are a motor of growth in local economies from the South East to the North West, from Yorkshire and the Humber to the West Midlands. Not-for-profit companies who receive funding from the Arts Councils, local authorities, alongside philanthropic donations to supplement income from ticket sales; and independent charitable trusts who receive no government subsidy and rely solely on philanthropic donations and ticket sales. These three pillars are inextricably linked: an intricate cross-country network of collaboration that has evolved over the past 70 years. Without support for each element, the entire ecosystem falls apart and cannot be rebuilt from scratch.

British theatre is far more than entertainment. It is beneficial to mental and physical health; it informs and educates. Moreover, they export British creativity to the world, with all the benefits to trade and tourism flowing from that global exposure.

Theatres and performing arts venues across the UK moved rapidly in response to Government advice to protect public health with every UK venue now dark. Covid-19 has removed all the sector’s trading income at a stroke and thrown business into crisis.

Overall, the impact has been immediate and devastating; the medium and long-term consequences see threats to economic, social and cultural well-being in communities all over the UK, including:

  • With all theatres closed for over two months, box office income and ancillary trading is at zero.
  • Fixed costs remain high, including listed building overheads at £70,000 to £100,000 on average per month. 70% of organisations will run out of cash by end of 2020 (across venues / producers and London / rest of the UK).
  • Theatres across the UK are going out of business, including venues in Leicester, Southampton and Southport.
  • The Job Retention Scheme has avoided large-scale redundancies to this point, and we welcome the government’s hard work on making this essential scheme available.
  • Without intervention, job losses are likely to number over 200,000 (employed and freelancers).
  • Loan schemes are very challenging to access, for example because of charitable status restrictions and financial structures of commercial operators unable to accommodate debt.
  • Social-distancing measures will allow for only circa 20% of capacity – this is not an economic business model for the sector, where 50% to 70% occupancy is typically needed to break even and means theatres cannot operate.
  • Loss to HMT of VAT payments (more than £130 million for West End theatres alone) plus enormous economic impact on all related hospitality and related businesses – multiplier estimated at 5-6 times in major cities – if theatres are forced to shut down permanently.
  • Major risk to towns and cities around the UK where investment in venues and jobs has led to regional powerhouses of production, including regional strength for sector in North East, Manchester, Midlands.

Following government/scientific advice on social distancing measures is crucial. However, for as long as social distancing measures rightly exist, for our sector this makes the prospect of reopening with any profitability impossible. While many other sectors will be able to gradually reopen under current measures, theatres cannot. It would leave around 20% of our seats available, and with 50% to 70% occupancy typically needed to break even theatres cannot operate. It is not possible to increase this capacity while respecting essential social distancing rules and this threatens to damage theatre and cultural spaces across the UK.

Any sector-wide reconstruction would be far costlier than this rescue package and a managed recovery. We therefore ask government to consider the following recommendations:

There are two groups of recommendations.

The first is a new Emergency Rescue Fund and Long-term Loan or Cultural Investment Participation Scheme. This is absolutely critical.

The second is a collection of extensions or revisions to existing policy. These are also critical to keep the sector alive until the longer-term solution is in place.

Group 1

Safeguard the strength and UK-wide impact of the sector through an Emergency Rescue Fund and a Cultural Investment Participation Scheme, and the protection of local authority leisure budgets.

Group 2

Sustain the workforce through a sectoral extension of the Job Retention Scheme at 80% until at least October; and an extension or replacement of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. This will also protect the wider ecology of theatre, and the thousands of small companies across the UK that allow the sector to function.

Catalyse the recovery including temporary modifications to the Theatre Production Tax Relief for three years, and other measures which would ease the tax burden in the short-term and allow for a stronger return to an income generative position.

Review insurance and liability policy in light of the new risks of reopening, to allow access by the sector to appropriate insurance. Currently, only 12% of organisations in the sector believe they would be able to secure insurance.

I have signed this letter to ask for fundamental and comprehensive action to be taken now, to prevent this this major part of the UK’s global offer from being lost.

Signed: Alison Thewliss MP; Allan Dorans MP; Alyn Smith MP; Andy Slaughter MP; Andrew Gwynne MP; Barbara Keeley MP; Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP; Ben Lake MP; Bob Seely MP; Carol Monaghan MP; Caroline Lucas MP; Chris Bryant MP; Christian Wakeford MP; Christine Jardine MP; Claudia Webbe MP; Claire Hanna MP; Clive Lewis MP; Daisy Cooper MP; Dame Diana Johnson MP; Dame Margaret Hodge MP; Damian Collins MP; Damian Green MP; Dan Jarvis MP; David Jones MP; David Morris MP; Debbie Abrahms MP; Diane Abbott MP; Douglas Chapman MP; Drew Hendry MP; Dr Julian Lewis MP; Edward Davey MP; George Howarth MP; Geraint Davies MP; Grahame Morris MP; Hilary Benn MP; Jason McCartney MP; Jon Cruddas MP; John Cryer MP; John Nicolson MP; Jonathan Gullis MP; Jonathan Lord MP; Julian Knight MP; Julian Sturdy MP; Julie Elliott MP; Karen Buck MP; Kenny MacAskill MP; Kevin Brennan MP; Kim Johnson MP; Layla Moran MP; Liam Byrne MP; Baroness Benjamin; Baroness Brinton; Baroness Brown of Cambridge; Baroness Donaghy; Baroness Garden of Frognal; Baroness Goudie; Baroness Hamwee; Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill; Baroness Harris of Richmond; Baroness Jolly; Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb; Baroness Kingsmill; Baroness Kramer; Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon; Baroness Lister of Burtersett; Baroness McGregor-Smith; Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall; Baroness Morris of Yardley; Baroness Primarolo; Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe; Baroness Watkins of Tavistock; Baroness Young of Hornsey; Jane Bonham-Carter; Lord Bichard; Lord Birt; Lord Black of Brentwood; Lord David Blunkett; Lord Carrington; Lord Cashman; Lord Clement-Jones; Lord Colgrain; Lord Desai; Lord Faulkner of Worcester; Lord Fellowes of West Stafford; Lord Foster of Bath; Lord Freyberg; Lord Glendonbrook; Lord Harries of Pentregarth; Lord Harris of Haringey; Lord Hollick; Lord Howarth of Newport; Lord Hunt of Kings Heath; Lord Inglewood; Lord Kerslake; Lord Kinnock; Lord Knight of Weymouth; Lord John Monks; Lord Oates; Lord Ramsbotham; Lord Randall of Uxbridge; Lord Ricketts; Lord Russell of Liverpool; Lord Sawyer; Lillian Greenwood MP; Martyn Day MP; Meg Hillier MP; Mhairi Black MP; Michael Fabricant MP; Mohammad Yasin MP; Munira Wilson MP; Owen Thompson MP; Paula Barker MP; Patricia Gibson MP; Patrick Grady MP; Pauline Latham MP; Pete Wishart MP; Peter Aldous MP; Rachael Maskell MP; Robert Goodwill MP; Rosie Cooper MP; Rushanara Ali MP; Sarah Olney MP; Sir Bob Neill MP; Sir David Amess MP; Sir Roger Gale MP; Stella Creasy MP; Stephen Farry MP; Stephen Hammond MP; Stephen Metcalfe MP; Stewart McDonald MP; Tim Farron MP; Tim Loughton MP; Theo Clarke MP; Tommy Sheppard MP; Virendra Sharma MP; Wendy Chamberlain MP; Wera Hobhouse MP; Zarah Sultana MP; Lord Smith of Finsbury; Lord Stoddart of Swindon; Lord Taylor of Goss Moor; Lord Taylor of Warwick; Lord Truscott; Lord Warner; Lord Willoughby de Broke; Patrick Boyle, Earl of Glasgow; The Earl of Lytton Viscount Chandos