UK festivals organisers need urgent help, say MPs

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Jason Richardson/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jason Richardson/Alamy

Dozens of festivals are facing “devastating consequences to their survival” this summer amid confusion within government over how a £1.57bn post-Covid arts fund will affect the sector, parliament’s spending watchdog has found.

The influential public accounts committee has called on the government to offer urgent support to outdoor events organisers in a report released on Wednesday.

The cross-party committee has revealed that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has not modelled the cost of underwriting festival insurance, despite demands for an immediate intervention.

The disclosure comes amid growing calls from across parliament and the music industry for the government to consider providing insurance for festivals against the risk of cancellation. The musician and Womad organiser Peter Gabriel last week urged ministers to intervene because commercial insurers “have run a mile”.

A string of events this summer have been cancelled in the wake of Boris Johnson’s decision last week to delay lifting Covid-19 restrictions until 19 July.

Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair, said the festival sector and those who work in it were in need of urgent government help.

“The pandemic has exposed just how poorly departments across government understand the sectors that they oversee. DCMS was clear that it ‘would not save every organisation’ but we are concerned about the impact of Covid-19 on those organisations vital to the culture sector – sound engineers, lighting and technical support.

“The government must urgently consider support other than cash, such as insurance indemnity or parts of the sector risk a second summer of forced inactivity with all the devastating consequences to their survival,” she said.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, announced the £1.57bn culture recovery fund (CRF) 11 months ago with the objective of rescuing up to three-quarters of arts, culture and heritage institutions and organisations at risk of financial ruin because of Covid-19.

In a 20-page report examining the distribution of the fund, the committee said the DCMS officials needed a better understanding of the fund’s “impact on freelancers, commercial organisations, supply-chain businesses and festivals”.

Highlighting the lack of non-financial support offered to festivals, the report said: “Festivals are making difficult decisions about whether to risk their survival by going ahead this summer, but the department has not modelled the cost of underwriting festival indemnity insurance.”

The report comes after a festival pilot was held at the weekend to help measure the impact of testing and vaccines on Covid-19 transmission at an outdoor event.

The Download festival saw metal fans who had tested negative for Covid-19 gathering in Leicestershire without needing to wear face coverings or socially distance. The capacity was significantly reduced from its normal attendance of 111,000 to about 10,000.

Latitude, which is run by Festival Republic, the company behind the Download pilot, announced on Friday it would be going ahead between 22 July and 25 July in Suffolk.

However, Lake District event Kendal Calling has cancelled its 2021 edition, due to take place from 29 July to 31 August with headliners including Stereophonics and Dizzee Rascal, citing a lack of guidance from the government.

Other festivals planned for June and July were cancelled or postponed after Johnson’s announcement last week.

The Black Deer festival in Kent, which was due to be headlined by Van Morrison at the end of June, the Noisily festival in Leicestershire, and the Kubix festival in Sunderland were also dropped.

A Conservative former minister told the Commons on Tuesday of his “fear” that data on large test events has not been published because “it would have demonstrated that we could have safely opened on 21 June”.

Mark Harper, who chairs the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, said he suspects the numbers from the Events Research Programme are “fantastically positive” after test events held at sporting, music and other venues have not caused any Covid-19 outbreaks and he is “a little confused” as to why the numbers have not been released.

“When the government doesn’t publish something it’s normally because it’s bad news and it’s trying to hide it away.

“I’ve got a very strong suspicion this set of data is fantastically positive. It must be ready for publication, because it must have been prepared for last week when step 4 was due to be announced so it must be ready to go,” he said.

Labour also raised concerns on the whereabouts of the data, which has been gathered at events including the FA Cup final, and asked if there was a “secret”.

“Why won’t the government tell the public, tell the industry and tell us what the results are, because all of those who have spent time and money organising and hosting test events – and those relying on this programme – would like to see the results,” said the shadow culture minister, Jo Stevens.

The culture minister Nigel Huddleston dismissed their concerns. “Some of the conspiracy theories around this, I’m afraid, I wouldn’t buy into.

“We have said already ( …) that if there were major concerns we would have made sure that information was in the public arena that would have been the responsible thing to do,” he said.

A DCMS spokesperson said the government would consider calls for insurance policy changes which could be needed once restrictions are lifted. “More help is on the way following a £300m boost to the culture recovery fund at the budget and we continue to explore what further support, including issues around securing insurance, may be required when the culture sector is able to reopen,” she said.

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