English festival season on a knife-edge without government support

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Scott M Salt/PA</span>
Photograph: Scott M Salt/PA

When Kendal Calling music festival decided to cancel for the second year in a row, its organisers left no doubt as to where they felt the blame lay. “If calls for a government-backed insurance scheme had been heeded,” they wrote in a statement this week, “we could have potentially continued to plan and invest in the coming weeks.”

A government-backed insurance scheme, or a lack of it, has become a make-or-break factor for festival organisers who are deciding whether to continue with this year’s events or pull the plug to avoid huge financial losses.

A public accounts committee report released on Wednesday said the lack of government-backed insurance indemnity against the risk of cancellation due to the pandemic, was a “survival threat to festivals”, which generate £1.76bn and employ 85,000 people.

Within the sector there’s immense frustration that an insurance scheme has not been signed off despite months of negotiations and reports recommending it be approved quickly in order to save this summer season.

Andy Smith, the director of Kendal Calling, said the lack of urgency has ultimately cost his event and dozens of others, including Boomtown, Deer Shed festival and Black Deer festival in Kent. “Even if we found out tomorrow that we could go ahead, it’s too late now. The insurance would have given us confidence to press on,” he said.

The government has flagged the fact that £34m of support has been allocated to festivals, but some – including Kendal Calling – have received no government support, despite applying for the Cultural Recovery Fund, Restart Grant and the Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund.

Simon Taffe, the curator and director of End of the Road festival, did receive some government support in the form of a £500,000 Arts Council grant. But without insurance, if this year’s event is cancelled, that money would only just cover the losses. “It feels like they are running down the clock and it is quite nail biting,” he said.

Related: Summer festivals are crying out for help – but the Tories don’t want to hear it | John Harris

Taffe is confident that an insurance scheme will materialise – with talk of an imminent deal beginning to spread through the sector – but knows his event may ultimately depend on it. “Our festival is at the beginning of September, but I feel for anyone who has to make decisions now. I’ve already spent so much money, so it would be silly for me not to spend another £50,000 to get to July 17 – in terms of pure gambling mathematics,” he added.

The government has offered insurance to different sectors. In July 2020 it stepped in with a £500m scheme to “jumpstart” the film and TV production industry, which meant shows such as Peaky Blinders could begin filming.

While figures from the festival sector acknowledge that was a higher priority at the time, the fact that since then nothing has been ratified to support the sector is baffling. “We’ve been massively ignored. I think festivals deserve it in July and August and September,” said Taffe. “I understand that they couldn’t give insurance to festivals before the June date, but now I feel like the uncertainty is what’s making people lose their shit.”

Paul Reed, chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals, said UK festivals are looking with envy at Austrian, Danish, Swedish and German events that have government-backed insurance. “It feels like the UK festival industry is being pushed to another cliff edge,” he said. “The government just aren’t stepping up on this insurance issue.”

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