Written by, Councillor for Cotham, Bristol, Cleo Lake
Do I have a bias in drafting this article given that I am a. an artist, b. self-employed, c. from Bristol? Answer: Probably yes! Like many cities, Bristol prides itself upon a reputation connected to arts, culture and a creative scene that contributes massively towards the city identity, well-being and the economy. The creative sector encompasses music, dance, theatre, photography, visual art, film and much more. But with gigs, festivals, events and workshops shelved and only a fraction of activity moving to online delivery, how are the people that hold this scene together fairing and what support is available?
Whilst the focus of this article is on the creative sector, it is also relevant for huge sections of our communities who often find themselves as freelancers, on zero-hours contracts or holding down more than one job. Evidence suggests that people of colour are more likely to fall into these categories and are thus more likely to be impacted for Covid 19, not just in terms of health but also economically. The challenges of COVID 19 do not affect us equally, they inflate pre-existing inequality and discrimination.
With an escalating understanding of the seriousness of COVID 19 on business and work, and with only days into his role, new Chancellor Rishi Sunak, was quite quick to make an announcement of plans to support businesses and safeguard wages and jobs. But it was a long wait and a significant lobby to get a deal announced for self-employed freelancers which when it came, gave relief for some and anxiety for others.
So what was the deal?
The deal was an agreement to pay self-employed workers a grant of up to £2500 a month initially for three months, payable in June.
So who qualifies for this grant?
It may sound obvious but you have to be registered self-employed to apply and therefore have a Unique Tax Reference number. As well as being registered you will also need to have filed a self-assessment tax return for the past three years. The last self-assessment was due on the 31st of January. (The chancellor announced a four week extension as of March 20th to those who are yet to file this years return). Each tax return includes information about how much money came in minus any associated costs to calculate your profit. Profit above a certain threshold is liable to be taxed and each tax return covers the period of work from the previous tax year so the last return due on January 31st, would have been for self employed work usually between April 2018 and April 2019.
Who doesn’t qualify ?
Newly self employed or those with less than three years of tax returns may not qualify for the grant and those yet to submit any tax return definitely will not. You may also not qualify if like many freelancers (me included), you supplement your income with other part time work (in my case my councillor allowance), from which you earn more than your freelance work. You also won't qualify if unlike me you earned over £50,000 in profit, which seems fair enough from where I’m sitting watching the pennies! Note that even if you do qualify, you cannot apply for this scheme yet and any grant will not be payable until June which doesn’t help many in need now. The fallback option will be to get in the growing queue and apply for Universal Credit. This crisis has however, forced more people to take seriously and consider Universal Basic Income as a solution.
A Green Party policy mainstay, UBI should not just be in reaction to the crisis as a temporary measure, but a long-term safety net for everyone who needs it.
What other support is available for creative freelancers?
Some have been able to move work online and keep an income. There is now a wealth of short courses, dance classes and concerts available, but this adaption isn’t possible for everyone. How is a wedding photographer supposed to keep working for example?
If you are a professional artist who has been part of a publicly funded project either directly or through an organisation and can prove loss of income then you may qualify for the Arts Council Emergency funding
Local Authorities may have their own schemes. The LGA (Local Government Association), alongside Core and Key Cities, Rural Services Network and other partners, have published a joint statement with Arts Council England about how to collaborate to support the cultural sector through this difficult time.
Forgotten Freelancers is a peer group set up as a response to the crisis and is a good supportive resource. Many artists and creatives are also taking it upon themselves to set up fundraising schemes or to apply to bodies such as the Musicians Union. Perhaps now is the time for more of us to consider joining a union. A starting point could be the Creative Industries Federation which is offering six months free membership.
What can the Council do?
It is important that the sector feels supported. Bristol City Council has a Cultural Investment Programme, which gives grants to support arts, culture and creative projects. Part of that investment comes through the Originators fund. The current round closed in November and applicants were due to be notified of success in February which got postponed and then the fund was subsequently cancelled due to COVID 19. I am hoping that the council’s decision to suspend the Originators Fund may be reviewed and reversed. In collaboration with Black South West Network, I co signed a letter to the relevant cabinet member appealing for them to: '..redirect funding from the Originators Fund that has been suspended to an emergency fund similar to the way the Art Council has redirected its fund from project grant to an emergency fund or to reevaluate applications assessed to support a fluid delivery date or virtual delivery.‘ and in addition to:
‘pay freelancers immediately by pulling invoices forward, if they have been doing work for Bristol City Council in the last few months,’ and to ‘honour any agreements with freelancers that you have already contracted to do work with you even if work has not started.’
Being able to reinstate some funding could provide a safety net and a financial filler for those who may qualify for the government grant but have to wait until June. Online virtual delivery where possible could also be part of a city offer of arts and cultural engagement during lockdown. Of course not everyone has access to the internet and digital exclusion has been exacerbated with the closing of libraries which provided busy and much needed computer hubs. It is important that projects factor this in and look at other innovative approaches of engagement and project delivery including utilising local radio networks. Worth noting is that other local funding bodies including Quartet have given their grant recipients the opportunity to extend their project delivery timelines or adapt delivery to meet current needs. They have also launched a Coronavirus Response Fund.
Why does this matter?
Understandably attention and priority has gone in the main towards front line workers at this time of crisis. However, ensuring that everyone has an income is one way of supporting people to stay indoors and be able to support themselves and pay their bills which is vital to reduce the spread and impact of COVID-19, and will also ultimately reduce the strain on important services in the future. The creative sector also has a role to play in enabling well-being and happiness within the city both during this time and after it.
‘In every community culture helps people live rich and fulfilled lives... The arts give people a chance to express and enjoy themselves, and promote strong and prosperous communities. The cultural sector derives much of its strength from the support it receives from Arts Council England and local government...The Covid-19 crisis is a huge challenge for the cultural sector, and this challenge must be overcome. Culture can help sustain people, communities and our country through these testing times, and when the crisis is over, it will help our recovery. ‘
Statement from Arts Council England, LGA and the Leisure and Culture Trust Sector.
If we make sure we look after artists and the self-employed during this crisis, then they are more likely to be able to continue to add benefit to our society as they have done historically, and even during lock down. In the absence of a Universal Basic Income and with confusion and delays in grants and possible welfare safety nets, cities must be prepared to find ways of supporting the creative sector which not only forms part of the city identity but also contributes massively to economic and non economic success indicators such as well-being and belonging.
When the pandemic is over, let us emerge from this crisis with a new sense of solidarity, with reformed ideas, new actions and ways of being together in the city and in the world. Everything is a choice and the new thinking and actions must start now in readiness.
‘It is a trial only of Our destiny.
Whether science or faith is our creed
We may die as we have lived
As closed tribes in constant contest
Or rise reborn as one precious family’
City poet Edson Burton