Britain at risk of becoming ‘cultural wasteland’ with widespread closures and redundancies in arts sector, MPs warn

Ashley Cowburn
·4-min read
Street artist Captain Kris works on a mural on the temporary hoardings outside the O2 Forum in Kentish Town: Getty
Street artist Captain Kris works on a mural on the temporary hoardings outside the O2 Forum in Kentish Town: Getty

Britain faces becoming a “cultural wasteland” with widespread theatre closures and mass redundancies in the arts because ministers acted too late to help the industry through the pandemic, MPs have warned.

In a new report, the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee claims the government has consistently failed to recognise the scale of the “existential threat” facing the UK’s cultural institutions during the coronavirus crisis.

Despite a recent emergency injection of £1.57bn by the Treasury into galleries, theatres, music venues and other cultural institutions, the committee added it was “regrettable” the fund took so long to announce.

While welcoming the arts package, the MPs said as a result of the uncertainty “it was too late for many in the sector and on its own will not be enough to stop mass redundancies and the permanent closure of our culture infrastructure.”

“Each year, more people attend the theatre than go to a league football match, yet while considerable effort has been made to resume professional football, the government’s roadmap for when theatres will reopen has been vague and slow coming.”

The chair of the committee and Conservative MP Julian Knight added: “We are in danger, if we’re not careful, of becoming a bit of a cultural wasteland.

“We are a world leader when it comes to culture and the damage that is being done ... if it is not confidently and promptly addressed, could lead to widespread destruction of our cultural and sporting infrastructure.”

According to evidence presented to the committee, which launched its inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on the digital, culture, media and sport sectors in April, the total loss of income for theatres is expected to be around £630m. “Seventy per cent of theatres and production companies risk going out of business by the end of the year, with more than £300m lost in box office revenue in the first 12 weeks of lockdown,” the report said.

The Music Venues Trust estimated that a staggering 93 per cent of grassroots music venues face permanent closure, “with 86 per cent of venues reporting that their core threat stems from an inability to meet commercial rent demands”.

MPs on the committee warn the response to the Covid crisis by the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport has been hindered by its spending power – with one of the smallest budgets of Whitehall departments.

They also urge the government to extend the cut on VAT on ticket sales for theatres and live music venues for the next three years and call on ministers to publish a “no earlier than” date for the reopening of performing arts venues. The MPs suggest the Treasury should extend the coronavirus furlough scheme for affected businesses until mass gatherings are once again permitted.

July and August are key in terms of organising Christmas seasons, the report said, which means “continued uncertainty about reopening could have devastating consequences far beyond the end of this year”.

Mr Knight added the UK is “witnessing the biggest threat to our cultural landscape in a generation”, claiming: “The failure of the government to act quickly has jeopardised the future of institutions that are part of our national life and the livelihoods of those who work for them.”

“Our report points to a department that has been treated as a ‘Cinderella’ by government when it comes to spending, despite the enormous contribution DCMS sectors make to the economy and job creation.”

Referring to the announcement by the culture secretary Oliver Dowden for a cash injection into the struggling industry, Mr Knight went on: “We can see the damaging effect that has had on the robustness and ability of these areas to recover from the Covid crisis. The £1.57bn support is welcome but for many help has come too late.

“We urge the government to act on our recommendations, to recognise the value these sectors provide and imagine how much bleaker the outcome for all without their survival.”

Unveiling the plan earlier in July, Boris Johnson said the money would help safeguard the arts for “future generations” and ensure businesses could stay afloat – despite still not being able to open their doors.

A DCMS spokesperson said: “We disagree with the committee. We have worked with urgency day in, day out since the start of the pandemic in providing support for our sectors and on plans to reopen them safely.

“Thousands of organisations and hundreds of thousands of jobs working across culture, the arts, sport and tourism have been saved by furloughing and loan schemes. Hospitality and tourism firms have also been helped by a year’s business rates holiday and a £4bn reduction in VAT.

“Our £1.57bn investment is the largest ever one-off cash injection into culture in this country. We have also worked with our arms-length bodies on additional emergency packages and provided billions in support to charities to help those most in need. We will respond in detail to the select committee’s report in due course.”

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