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Covid-19: Regional Theatres

Volume 806: debated on Monday 28 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to help regional theatres survive the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their normal operations and sources of income.

My Lords, this Government recognise how severely regional theatres and the wider arts sector have been hit by the Covid-19 crisis. Our unprecedented £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund builds on the £200 million in emergency public funding to help stabilise organisations, protect jobs and ensure that work continues to flow to freelancers. We want this investment to benefit all parts of the country, not only those cities which may already be rich in cultural assets, and for smaller organisations and cultural venues at centre of their communities to be protected.

My Lords, the first theatre I ever attended was the beautiful Grand Theatre in Blackpool. Like many other iconic regional theatres, it now faces the possibility that it has closed for good. Can the Minister give assurances that the cultural recovery fund and other government measures will take careful cognisance of the contribution that these iconic theatres give to the cultural, educational and social life of the regions?

I am pleased to reassure the noble Lord that that is exactly the way that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Culture are approaching this. They recognise the critical value of these institutions to communities and the people who live and work in them.

My Lords, I support the speech of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. He went to the heart of the issue. I would like to widen regional theatre to include music and, indeed, opera. I have a young friend, aged 30, with a brilliant bass voice; he has been called on to sing in Covent Garden and the Met. When this started, all his bookings just faded away. There was no cover and no protection from the theatres. I am pleased to hear the Government are cognisant of the issue and what needs to be done, but I beg them to find the right way to save our theatres and our wonderful regional opera. I think we perhaps have something to learn from Germany.

I thank my noble friend for highlighting the pressures that some extraordinarily talented performers face. We have tried to move as quickly as possible on this. We have already allocated £3.36 million of emergency funding to 135 grass-roots music venues, and we are currently processing over 4,000 applications for over £880 million to the cultural recovery fund.

My Lords, surely in these times it is not a coincidence that Dudley Council last week announced the decision to demolish the art deco Dudley Hippodrome, despite the clear desire of the local people to restore the building and maintain it for cultural use. Will the Government look at that decision? More broadly, what guarantees will they give that, with both the effects of Covid and the loosening of planning rules, many of our physical cultural assets—not just theatres but art centres, museums and other venues—will not eventually face a similar fate?

My Lords, I am sorry to hear about the fate of the Dudley Hippodrome. However, strategically, this fund has been very much aligned to the fact that we must protect key physical institutions to protect the jobs and creativity that are found there.

My Lords, will the Minister explain why all those who work in the theatre are not eligible for the Chancellor’s new job support scheme?

I hope that the noble Lord welcomes the new job support scheme and, importantly, its extension for self-employed people to the end of April. The uptake in the art sector of these schemes has been among the largest of any sector in the economy.

My Lords, those of us who are concerned about how badly Covid restrictions have affected British theatre are grateful to the Government for their recent generous contribution to helping it out. However, we are also concerned that too much of this money will be going to the big cities, such as London and Manchester, and that the provincial theatres, which are suffering at least as much, may be bypassed. These provincial theatres need to be maintained as venues for major touring companies as well as for their local theatre groups. It is worth reminding ourselves that these local theatre groups are the breeding ground for so many aspiring new actors and producers, which have helped to make British theatre the best in the world. The Minister has already half answered this question and has already assured us that she will concern herself very much with the provincial as well as with the major theatres.

I thank the noble Earl for helping me to answer the question. He is quite right that there are two key criteria in the culture recovery fund: institutions of national importance, and making sure that we use that money to continue to help level up all our communities.

My Lords, some 90,000 jobs are currently at risk in the creative industries, and regional theatres right across the country are under threat. As my noble friend Lord Foulkes said, Treasury schemes have not helped the creative freelance sector, and we now know that this is because the Chancellor does not regard them as being viable jobs. Does the Minister agree with him? The film and TV sector now has a government-backed plan to help it restart productions. Why cannot that scheme be extended to regional theatres with immediate effect?

I am not clear where the Chancellor said he did not see these as viable jobs. We have used every effort to make sure that the unprecedented level of support for these sectors is as wide and comprehensive as possible.

I draw attention to my entry in the register of Members’ interests, in particular my work with the National Youth Theatre and Digital Theatre+. May I ask my noble friend about further measures to support regional theatre? I absolutely congratulate her, her colleagues and the Treasury for the astonishing level of financial support that has already been provided. However, two practical measures may make a difference. One would be to consider increasing the threshold for the excellent theatre tax relief, brought in by a Conservative Government, perhaps as theatre begins to recover. The second, partly to echo the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, would be to have a government insurance scheme to cover theatrical productions as they begin, we hope, to come back to life.

I welcome my noble friend to his place in the Chamber. He makes two helpful suggestions. He is quite right that the theatre productions tax relief generated £71 million in the last year, which supported almost 3,600 productions; the Treasury keeps that under review at all times. We are working with the sector, looking at options around insurance, and my honourable friend the Minister for Culture is meeting with groups on this on a weekly basis.

My Lords, theatre is only regional when viewed from a distance; to those living around them theatres are local, and they play a vital role in serving local communities and local needs. The Minister will be aware of the many ways in which local theatres have pivoted to address challenges I know are close to her heart, such as tackling loneliness. Can she say how government rescue packages are helping local theatres that have not shut but which have instead changed the nature of their engagement with communities to meet their immediate needs during the pandemic?

I am happy to echo the noble Baroness’s recognition of the important work that many local theatres and other cultural organisations have done during the pandemic. There has been extensive business support, which has been covered frequently in this House, but earlier this year the Government also announced a major £750 million package for those which are charities and social enterprises.