As a general principle, it is hard to imagine that many theatre folk show any interest when the Chancellor of the Exchequer stands up to deliver his annual Budget speech. Rishi Sunak may be photogenic and is a confident performer, but his material leaves a great deal to be desired, unless you are an economist or accountant. However, given the vicissitudes of the last 12 months, show people are short of cash and desperate for any good news on the financial front.
Before getting into some of the relevant announcements, it is worth reflecting on events and, more pleasingly, lack of some.
Around nine months ago, Sonia Friedman predicted that by the end of 2020, 70% of all theatres might have gone to the wall. While one or two disappeared in the early days of the pandemic, the rest seem to have been holding up remarkably well, partly supported by the long-delayed financial package offered by the government and administered by Arts Council England and its national equivalents.
Time will tell as to whether we can expect more bad news in coming months. Realistically, few theatres will be able to open on a commercial basis before the summer or possibly considerably later. We know that there have been mass redundancies and many freelancers working in the sector have seen little or no income since last March.
There was further disappointing news earlier in the week when a leak informed the arts world that the Victoria and Albert Museum has decided to close its Theatre and Performance Department, as one of a raft of cost-cutting measures. This department has been a source of great pleasure to many with an interest in the art form, as well as operating a hub that has been of immense help to numerous researchers.
Given all of the money that the government is pumping into various projects (and pockets), it is a shame that they are unwilling to provide the relatively small amount of cash required to bolster what many would see as an important and unique offering.
Almost all of the good news in the budget comes with very strict time limits.
The Job Retention Scheme a.k.a. furlough is to be extended until the end of September, although employers will have to make larger contributions. In addition to Pension and National Insurance Contributions, they will have to pay 10% of salary in July and August and 20% in September. Even so, this should keep a number of people in work who would otherwise have lost their jobs.
The Self-Employed Income Scheme is extending on roughly the same basis. That will come as a massive relief to those who have been kept afloat thanks to the intermittent payments so far.
It gets even better. It is a well-publicised scandal that those who started trading after the start of the pandemic in tax year 2019/20 had to date benefited by not a single penny. They will now qualify for the fourth and fifth SEIS payouts as long as they filed a tax return before Budget Day (i.e. by 2 March). While Mr Sunak was making this sound like a generous gesture, he conveniently ignored the obvious inference that beneficiaries will not be allowed to catch up on what should have been their entitlement to some or all of the first three payments.
While some might beef at an additional occasion to the arrangements, restricting the amounts paid to those whose profits have been reduced by no more than 30% doesn’t sound wholly unreasonable. The upshot is that anyone with sharply reduced profits will be able to claim 80% of up to £25,000 per annum, while those whose trades have not fared so badly will get only 30%.
We can also assume that part of the funds set aside for those businesses that have fared particularly badly due to the pandemic will come to theatres and associated industries, although much of this might be by way of loan rather than outright grant.
The reduced rate of VAT at 5% is to continue to September but will then head back to 12½% for a further 18 months before returning to 20% forever. Similarly, the business rate holiday extends until June with two-thirds of relief for the three months after that, subject to a maximum £2 million.
For those that are interested and might benefit, there could also be funding opportunities for communities to take over local theatres, although one imagines that to many this might sound more like a government marketing gimmick rather than a practical proposal.
Unfortunately, Rishi Sunak was silent regarding proper funding for businesses that remain closed down in the spring and quite possibly the summer and beyond as a result of the pandemic beyond £400m to help arts institutions to reopen. First, they will need to survive.
This also begs the oft-asked question as to whether the government is willing to underwrite insurance premiums if theatres open and then, ignoring the Prime Minister’s declaration of irreversibility, close within weeks yet again.
The original $1.57m. Funding round was supposed to run to 31 March 2021 and therefore, in effect, most theatres could be on their own after that. This might mean that Sonia Friedman’s gloomy prediction might come a little closer to fruition.
Alternatively, COVID-19 might be so scared of a run-in with Boris Johnson that it really does leave the country forever on 21 June.