Funding For The Theatre

House of Commons - Westminster Hall

It is a great privilege to follow that very fine speech by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). I agree with every word that she said. As I cannot begin to match her eloquence, I shall make a much more pragmatic and mundane contribution to the debate.

I want to speak about one thing. Although I agreed with every word that the hon. Lady said, we must remember that this debate is not just about London, although it is tremendously important. I declare an interest: I am a passionate theatre-goer, and a strong supporter of the Royal Shakespeare Company in particular. I was privileged to see Patrick Stewart’s extraordinary performance as Prospero in “The Tempest” only the week before last. That company gets 43.4 per cent. of its income in grants of one kind or another. For the sake of propriety, I should declare that my son is currently at drama school training to be a stage manager or technical theatre expert.

Theatre, like all art, has always been subsidised. I sometimes hear the argument that art should stand on its own two feet, but great art has almost never done that. There have been patrons of the arts down the centuries: princes, kings, counts, dukes and rich people of one kind or another sought to immortalise themselves through their patronage. The leading patron now perforce must be the state.

I welcome the increase in funding that the Government have made available to the Arts Council over the years, but we must remember two things. First, theatre funding is 0.02 per cent. of all public expenditure, so it is hardly a great sum to maintain against all the other competing priorities. I hope that that will help the Minister in his negotiations with the Chancellor. Secondly, there have been net reductions in real-terms funding for the arts since 2005. I agree that they have been modest, but I hope that we can at least put the arts back into a period of stability again, after the welcome growth that they experienced earlier.

I am concerned about the financial pressures that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Arts Council England are likely to be under, as their core funding—and, therefore, the funding for individual theatres—is threatened. I am also worried about the lottery, which, since its inception under John Major, has made such a big contribution to theatre life. I do not want to be partisan in what should be a bipartisan debate, but I fear that the rising costs of the Olympics could have serious implications for many theatres the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. I look for reassurance from the Minister about how he hopes to maintain the funding streams to performing arts in general and the theatre in particular in the face of that real challenge.

I said that not just London is involved. There is a huge variety of theatre. Theatre companies that serve my constituency, broadly defined, include touring companies such as Shindig, and Collar and Tie, which go to schools and rural communities. We should not forget amateur theatre in this debate. There is a small amateur theatre in Droitwich Spa, the Norbury, which faces huge challenges to keep itself on the road. It would normally have looked to lottery funding to do that.

There is an absolutely fantastic arts centre called No. 8 in Pershore, which is just outside my constituency. We should pay tribute to the work done by many councils. For example, Wychavon district council provides No. 8 with its accommodation at a peppercorn rent, which enables it to do a fantastic job for the people of Pershore. The theatre works almost entirely with volunteer management and staff. It hopes to apply for core funding from the Arts Council, but it thinks that the funding taps are being turned off because of the Olympics and so on and that theatre groups and art centres that are not regularly funded organisations at present will find themselves left out in the cold. Its excellent managing director, Ray Steadman, is genuinely apprehensive that the tendency will be to concentrate money in strategic areas—mainly urban areas—leaving rural areas to suffer.

The financial pressures on Worcestershire county council mean that it no longer has an arts officer or assistant. It will be interesting to see how Arts Council England will negotiate an appropriate settlement for No. 8, should it be minded to pay it at all, because, historically, the advice of the county council has been of great importance to Arts Council England.

I think of Malvern Theatres, which has benefited hugely from lottery funding and modestly from continued funding from Arts Council England. It is privileged to get many west end try-outs. I saw Felicity Kendal in “Amy’s View” there a few weeks ago before its west end run. Again, the facility exists in its current fine form only because of the huge amount of money that it has had from the lottery. The Birmingham Rep is a fine repertory theatre, and the Hippodrome was a huge lottery winner. Millions of pounds were spent on refurbishing that theatre, and many of the companies that perform in it are subsidised by Arts Council England or other parts of the Arts Council budget.

On other parts of the Arts Council, I particularly wish to highlight the threat to funding in Northern Ireland. Those of us in the performing arts alliance group were very disturbed indeed to hear a presentation from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland about the significant real-terms cuts in funding for theatre there. At a time of great hope for peace in Northern Ireland, it would be tragic if the arts, which can make such a major contribution to building a sense of social cohesion, spirit and harmony, were to suffer a significant reduction in their budget. All the evidence points to that happening, and on 21 March “The Stage” website said:

“Northern Ireland’s theatre companies are facing a third successive year of cutbacks after the arts council announced standstill funding allocations for 2007/8.”

Such matters are of real concern, and I want to reinforce everything of a philosophical and powerful nature that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate said. I issue a strong plea from the provinces at all levels for Arts Council of England funding, for adequate funding for councils to do their job and for the lottery, which has done such fantastic work in my constituency and county over the past years. Of course, I also issue a plea on behalf of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, whose fine new theatre is shortly to be developed. The last performance in the old theatre will take place some time this week—on Saturday, I think—after which the old auditorium will close for major refurbishment.

I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to one other thing, if he is not already aware of it. Not only does the theatre face significant cuts in funding in real terms, but it may face an increased bill from the Government if Ofcom proceeds with its auction of spectrum, as it currently intends. I have heard hopeful indications that Ofcom is rethinking its position and promising a new consultation paper after the first consultation ends on the programme-making and special events sector, which covers drama, news gathering, sports and all kinds of other sectors, too. If the auction of spectrum proceeds on its current basis and is released for the digital dividend, there is a real risk that the radio microphone frequencies might be no longer available. If theatres cannot get that spectrum, it would mean the end for large swathes of theatre, and if they get it at a high price, it would mean a huge new bill for large sections of the performing arts in the UK. So I plead with the Minister to keep a careful eye not only on the Arts Council of England to negotiate sharply with the Chancellor, but to watch what Ofcom is doing, too. If the Government do not do that, we could land a massive new bill on our theatres with serious consequences for all of them.

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