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UK watchdog finds only a third of COVID arts aid has been distributed

The UK’s independent public spending watchdog has revealed that only £495m of the £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) announced last summer has been paid out so far.

In a report published today (Friday), the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted that just over half of the £830m worth of grants and loans awarded since the CRF was set up last July had been distributed as of February 19.

The watchdog, which holds the government to account and aims to improve public services through audits, found in its Investigation into the Culture Recovery Fund that the speed at which different funds have paid out to recipients has varied.

Of the four Arms Length Bodies (ALBs) utilised to award funds — Arts Council England (ACE), Historic England (HE), the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) and the British Film Institute (BFI) – the NAO pointed to ACE as one of the distributors to move most quickly. It provided grants totalling £3.4m to 135 music venues through its Emergency Grassroots Music Venues Fund, and began to pay out by August 24, within one month of receiving applications.

ACE offered loans totalling £170m to 12 applicants, with the largest loan totalling £40m to Historic Royal Palaces. Almost £33m has been paid out.

NAO noted that during the first phase of funding, applications for both revenue and capital grants were oversubscribed, while loans funding was undersubscribed. By December, some 85 per cent of revenue grants had been awarded to the arts and 15 per cent to heritage organisations. London received the biggest proportion of cash with some 31 per cent of the total.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has not yet paid out anything from its second phase of funding, totalling £400m, and has added money not awarded in the first phase to the £258m revenue grant funding that it had held back as contingency.

Decisions on the phase two recipients is due to be made by the end of March – the time initially envisaged by the DCMS as being the worst-case scenario as to when social distancing measures would end. The CRF received an extra £300m in last week’s budget, bringing total funding across three rounds to £1.87bn.

Responding to the report, Michael Kill, chief executive of Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), said: “We continue to work with DCMS & Arts Council England to ensure that this funding is distributed fairly throughout the arts & culture sectors, and accessibility and eligibility at the point of submission and assessment is considered for businesses that traditionally are not accustomed to applying for grants as part of a bidding process.

“Many businesses are awaiting the outcome of the CRF 2, which will be fundamental to their future, and ultimately have an impact on the cultural tapestry of this country for years to come, but it will still lead to disappointment for many.

“Government should work alongside trade associations and local councils for CRF 3, to identify key organisations within their sectors and communities that still need support to survive.”

Image: David Joyce/CC BY-SA 2.0/Edited for size