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Coronavirus will irreparably damage London’s creative heart without proper support for freelancers

Freelancing in London’s creative industries has increased two-fold in the last decade, with over half of workers in the sector now self-employed. Without substantial relief for self-employed workers during the coronavirus pandemic, London’s status as a creative capital is under threat.

Industry professionals agree that the government’s response to the crisis has not gone far enough to support freelance, self-employed and zero-hours workers. These groups can now access the equivalent to statutory sick pay for employees and apply for income replacement through the Universal Credit. But self-employed workers do not benefit from the income replacement scheme (‘furloughed workers’) announced for employees – where government temporarily pays up to 80 per cent of an employee wage while they are not needed.

A poll put out by trade union Bectu shows that 97 per cent of creative freelancers are unhappy with the relief they’ve been offered. They are over seven times more likely to be worried about paying their bills than they are for their own health.

Why has the crisis hit the creative industries so hard, and what can be done to support its workers?

To answer this question, Members of the Mayor’s Cultural Leadership Board hosted an online roundtable, facilitated by Centre for London. The roundtable brought together key cultural institutions, unions, freelancers, political leaders and the Mayor’s office to discuss the resilience of London’s creative workforce.

Two urgent crises ahead

The attendees raised concerns that the current crisis could result in a year-long collapse for the cultural sector and not a temporary blip. There was deep concern about the ability of the UK’s cultural industries to weather any recession which follows the coronavirus, because as well as a dependence on freelance workers, they rely heavily on seasonality and long-term event planning. High profile local event and venue closures have resulted in substantial job losses for London’s creative workforce. Yet despite having in average 90 to 100 per cent of their annual work cancelled in the space of a few weeks, many are not entitled to any notice or redundancy pay. And as a hub for national talent, UK-wide event cancellations have had a serious effect on the capital.

This crisis is threatening the lives and livelihoods of freelancers in the cultural sector and risks raising the entry barrier for creatives from underrepresented backgrounds. Self-employed workers with savings, or who live with a higher earning family member, do not qualify for the government’s offer of statutory sick pay equivalent or Universal Credit relief. For those that do qualify, the maximum income relief Universal Credit can give a single self-employed person over 25 is £318 a month / £3,816 a year – and this depends on having minimal savings, when many self-employed workers save to pay their tax bill or support themselves between commissions.

Freelance creatives will have to shoulder the financial risk, despite more often than not having very low earnings. Many artists will be forced to leave the sector to seek alternative employment and will not come back, especially those without a safety net. A lack of support in times of crisis will be a big turnoff for those considering a career in the arts, and damage recent efforts to make the cultural industries more diverse.

Two opportunities

But several participants at the roundtable suggested how this crisis offers a unique chance to stimulate cultural production in the UK and London.

No sector is better armed with the skills to think creatively in the midst of a crisis than the cultural industries. Creative professionals are already experimenting with online dissemination and the industry at large is directing efforts to support frontline staff. Could the government establish a Research and Development fund to support individual creativity through the crisis, finance experiments with digital technologies and join-up pandemic support efforts?

In turn, the cultural sector is well positioned to offer solace in the midst of a recession and public health crisis, creating communities while we are physically apart. Creative freelancers are already providing entertainment in isolation with virtual gigs, DJ-sets, theatre productions and radio plays, and currently have a captive international audience. Could the government bolster financial support, showcase the creative capacity of the capital and country and extend its reach further than performances to a live audience ordinarily allow?

What’s being done by industry, and what’s next

Unions are offering free membership, and increasing their benevolent funds for members, and the Arts Council have bolstered and refocused grants. The BFI and The Film and TV Charity are also offering a £1 million emergency fund. The Greater London Authority is increasing resources in the Culture at Risk Office to strengthen their information gathering capacity and is lobbying government to ensure freelancers are supported in the long term. The creative industries’ existing hardship funds are offering support, but there is a real opportunity to fund new work when nearly all projects have fallen through. This is needed urgently.

The coronavirus pandemic will change the cultural infrastructure of London and the UK. But the crisis offers opportunities to reimagine a future unthinkable before and build resilience in a sector that is lacking. Creative freelancers seldom enter the profession to get-rich-quick and for most, it is a labour of love. The arts are integral to London’s success as a global capital and without substantial support London will lose its beating heart.

Nicolas Bosetti is a Research Manager and Erica Belcher is a Researcher at Centre for London. Follow Nicolas and Erica on Twitter.