Blog: Levelling Up

Theatres Trust Director Jon Morgan looks at the funding opportunities for theatres arising from the government’s Levelling Up agenda.

Our research estimates that more than £1bn is needed in the next 5 years to maintain and improve the theatre infrastructure. The need ranges from replacing life-expired building fabric and services, to making vital improvements to access and environmental performance, and improving facilities both to increase community engagement and to maximise revenue.  With capital funding budgets across the UK’s arts councils frozen or dramatically reduced in recent years, reduced local authority spending and the long-ranging impact of Covid on theatre finances, raising vital capital investment is going to be extremely challenging. But could the government’s Levelling Up agenda unlock the financial support the sector needs?

The UK Government Levelling Up White Paper sets ambitious and wide-ranging targets for reducing inequalities across the UK. While culture is only mentioned once – in the ‘pride of place’ target – theatres in their role as community hubs, supporting inclusion and wellbeing, and as drivers for economic recovery, are well placed to contribute to this agenda and to access much needed funding.

In February, Arts Council England and DCMS announced an additional £75m to be allocated to 109 Levelling Up for Culture Places in England.  Organisations in areas that historically have had lower investment in arts and culture will be encouraged to bid for funds.  Although there has been some debate in the arts sector about whether this fund properly recognises the distribution of economic deprivation across the UK, including in Greater London, Theatres Trust supports this initiative.  40% of English theatres on our Theatres at Risk Register are in Levelling Up for Culture areas and if they are able to access some of this funding, the benefits of a vibrant, revitalised theatre at the heart of these communities would be enormous.

But these figures are far outstripped by the opportunities afforded by the Levelling Up Fund and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which will distribute £4.8bn and £2.6bn respectively to areas across the UK by 2025.  ‘Cultural Investment’ is one of only three investment themes for the Levelling Up Fund, so theatres are very well placed to work with their local authorities to make sure they are included in any bid. A number of theatres have already benefited from the first round of funding, accessing capital investment for new or upgraded facilities, including Home in Manchester, Muni Arts Centre in Pontypridd, and the Alexandra Theatre in Bognor Regis. 

There will be further rounds every year for the next three years with local authorities able to make single or multiple bids for up to a total of £20m.  While all local authorities are eligible to apply, funding will be targeted to places with the most significant need as identified in the Levelling Up Fund Prospectus, where each place is ranked 1-3 (with 1 having the most significant need).  This is good news for many theatres. 342 theatres are in Priority 1 places and 355 in Priority 2, while 54% of Theatres at Risk are in Priority 1 areas and 29% in Priority 2.  The deadline for local authorities to submit Round 2 bids is 6 July, so if they are not already doing so, theatres should ensure they are talking to their local authority about their capital ambitions for inclusion in the bid.

Alongside plans for much greater devolution of power with the potential for devolution deals available to every part of England, the Levelling Up White Paper also announced that the £2.6bn UK Shared Prosperity Fund would be decentralised to local leaders as far as possible.  The prospectus for this fund was published in April and interestingly it will operate quite differently from the Levelling Up Fund and other similar competitive funds like the various High Streets schemes.  All areas of the UK will receive an allocation from the fund via a funding formula rather than by competition.  This means that although local authorities will need to submit plans to DLUHC for approval they will not have to compete against one another.  The area allocations, which are listed in the prospectus, range from £1m for the smallest tier two authorities, through to tens of millions for the larger unitary authorities and mayoral combined authorities. 

These ‘lead authorities’ are expected to consult with local stakeholders by forming Local Partnership Groups, so individual theatres or consortia should contact the relevant authority to make sure they are involved.  Helpfully, all three investment priorities for this fund reference the ‘Pride of Place’ ambition from the Levelling Up White Paper and the fund allows for investment in both revenue and capital projects.  Lead authorities will no doubt start working their plans very soon, if they’ve not already done so, as the window for them to submit their proposals runs from 30 June to 1 August, so its important theatres get onto their lead authority as soon as possible.

Theatres have a great story to tell.  They have been ‘levelling up’ for decades through their central role in villages, towns and cities across the UK as prominent, iconic buildings contributing to pride of place, through their work with diverse local communities and through their significant wider economic impact.  Now is the time to turn up the volume on that story to drive much needed investment in our theatres as they recover from the pandemic and to protect the invaluable contribution they make to all our lives.