Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Step by step, the nation is cautiously beginning to ease out of lockdown. Primary teachers are set to welcome children. Retailers are preparing to put out the ‘open’ sign. As scientists monitor infection rates, communities are starting to venture outside, under the Government’s revised guidelines.
Now, as footballers prepare to take to the field, thoughts are also turning to how the cultural sector can raise the curtain on a new post-Covid era.
In the West Midlands, the region’s tourism and cultural businesses have been among the hardest hit by the lockdown and, with little revenue generated, they have been almost entirely reliant on Government support to avoid redundancies and closures.
However, we believe we now have a unique opportunity to re-establish cultural life as a key economic driver in the region’s post-Coronavirus recovery. Last week, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden received a letter jointly signed by myself, Fiona Allan, chair of the West Midlands Tourism Board and Martin Sutherland, CEO of Coventry City of Culture 2021, asking for our region to be the national pilot area to reopen for tourism and the arts.
By becoming a test bed, we want to help strike the right balance between safety concerns and cultural activity, setting the stage for other regions to follow. As pace-setters for tourism, our ambitious creative and cultural industries are well placed to lead the way.
A record 131 million people visited the West Midlands in 2018, a 2.6 per cent increase in visitors compared with the previous year. Behind this success lies improved facilities, attractions, transport links and, above all, a concerted effort by a united cultural sector to change perceptions of our region as a place to visit.
Even in lockdown, that ambition has been obvious. In Solihull, the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) has just set out a £45million investment plan to increase capacity of its Resorts World arena by 6,000 – to 21,000 – making it bigger than the O2 in London and Manchester Arena.
Our heritage continues to play an important part in our cultural future too. The remarkable Black Country Living Museum – one of the filming locations for Peaky Blinders – has unveiled its ‘Forging Ahead’ project, with plans to build a new attraction that will allow visitors to step back in time to the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
In Digbeth, one of Birmingham’s creative hubs, Steven Knight – the man behind Peaky Blinders – is aiming to open a film and TV studio that has already been dubbed ‘Brummiewood’.
Despite lockdown, even now in Wolverhampton, Wolves are adding another 500 seats to their Molineux stadium – a step towards their long-term transformational vision for the stadium.
The sports sector continues to drive a raft of improvements to our tourist and cultural offer – which will be supercharged by Coventry City of Culture next year and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022.
This kind of ambition has made the cultural and tourism sectors vital parts of the West Midlands economy. They support 135,000 jobs in the region, contributing around £12.6bn a year to the local economy.
But they now face the daunting prospect of being one of the last sectors to be released from lockdown, and even then having to operate at a much-reduced capacity. The figures are stark. 95% of businesses in the sector here report a fall in revenue. Over 50% are struggling with cashflow. More than 40% have closed or ceased trading with a further 35% forecast to join them by August.
The Government has moved to support the arts, freeing cash for Arts Council England’s £160m fund to help deal with the pandemic’s immediate impact. Self-employed people in the arts world have also been able to benefit from the self-employed income support scheme, with cash grants of up to £2,500 per month.
We need to work with Government to identify how to safely and carefully reopen parts of these sectors, as part of the wider recovery programme for the economy. Regional leaders are keen to see staff in the sector allowed to return on a reduced, part-time basis until it is safe for normal activity to resume.
Safety, of course, must remain the number one concern, with the Government’s newly-instituted Entertainment and Events Working Group leading the way. Combining the expertise of medics and scientists with 30 organisations including the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Really Useful Group, they will help formulate how the sector reopens.
The West Midlands stands ready to act as a pilot area to help. That means developing plans that would diligently plot the routes visitors take through attractions and adjusting the lay-out of facilities for social distancing. It would mean thinking through the best methods of arrival and departure for visitors, and how to organise intermissions in events. Venues must also consider how to organise parking and how to connect safely with public transport points that deliver audiences. A pilot would provide valuable insights for UK venues preparing for life after lockdown.
The economic benefits for our region of an earlier-than-planned reopening are obvious. The West Midlands is a leader in business tourism, with a huge market share in conferencing and exhibitions, meaning the NEC group would be a key part of our pilot plans. It would provide a much-needed boost for visitor destinations such as Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick. It would also inject confidence into the region’s theatres, which are currently considering whether to cancel Christmas productions, one of their biggest annual money-spinners.
But the terrible human tragedy of those we have lost to Covid-19, and the hardships endured by so many in lockdown, make it doubly important that the reopening of our cultural sector is monitored and led by science. We cannot risk another wave of this terrible disease.
Yet we cannot underestimate the economic value of culture to the nation – Britain is a world leader in the arts – nor its ability to boost morale as we seek to find a ‘new normal’ for society.
Now is the time to start carefully considering the next act for the arts in the UK. Culture, like sport, is a shared experience that defines society. By taking onboard the advice of scientific experts and tapping into the expertise of our cultural industries, we can plot a course for its safe return. After so many months of lockdown, only then can we say that collective society is back.
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