Arts Council (Special Grant)

Petitions – in the House of Commons at 1:29 pm on 20th December 1985.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith , Islington South and Finsbury 1:29 pm, 20th December 1985

The Minister for the Arts has explained to me why he is unable to be present today. He is attending a meeting of Ministers in Brussels. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment—the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold)—will be an admirable substitute. The Minister has offered me a meeting to discuss arts funding in the new year, and I shall take up his offer keenly.

I start from the view that the arts have an enormous value for millions of people. Governments of all political persuasions must encourage the production of the arts to foster creativity, and must at the same time ensure that the general public can enjoy the arts—especially the performing arts—at prices which everyone can reasonably afford. Those twin principles—the fostering of initiative and creativity, and encouraging the public to participate in and enjoy the arts—are the cornerstones of any sensible arts funding policy.

Sadly, the present position is not so happy. Many artistic institutions will have great problems when the GLC and the metropolitan county councils are abolished at the end of March 1986. The funds at present placed at the disposal of artistic institutions by the GLC and the metropolitan counties will not be available after 1 April. The Government have recognised the problem and have said that they will make available additional funds through the Arts Council to enable replacement funding for the institutions that will suffer. However, the amount is insufficient.

I can do no better than quote a letter that I received only two days ago from the chairman of the Arts Council, Sir William Rees-Mogg. On the general problem of replacement funding, he wrote: I must make clear to you the very great difficulties the Council faces with regard to post-abolition funding given that the sum of £25 million provided by Government to replace Met. County spending on the Arts, while an improvement on the originally intimated £16 million, still falls far short of the £35 million which the Council has identified as the real need.

That is not the Opposition speaking; that is the chairman of the Arts Council, appointed by the Government, telling them that the amount of replacement funding should be £35 million, not £25 million. That is the root cause of the problem which I shall discuss today. That is the major problem facing many artistic institutions that are vying for too small a part of Arts Council funding.

I hope that the Government will not give the excuse that the Minister for the Arts gave at a recent Question Time when he said that arts funding has risen by 7 per cent. in real terms under this Government. The arts world is baffled by that figure and every calculation demonstrates that it is not correct. I hope that the Government will not start saying that they have been very good to the arts and that we should appreciate that. The simple fact is that £35 million is needed and £25 million is being made available. That is about to have a serious effect on the arts.

I wish to speak principally about two artistic institutions in my constituency—two theatres that receive funds from the Greater London council. They are the Almeida theatre and the Sadler's Wells theatre.

The Almeida was founded about six years ago and has shown a remarkable development, largely through the initiative, enterprise and creativity of the small group who started the theatre and have put in a tremendous amount of work to make it an institution which is respected not only nationally, but internationally. Remarkable progress has been made in those six years.

Not only have those at the theatre produced great achievement in artistic terms, but they have transformed a derelict building into one of the most attractive theatres in the country. The mixture of productions, ranging from the almost popular to the wildly avant garde, has added new dimensions to the artistic enjoyment available within our capital city.

The people at the theatre have adopted an extremely sensible housekeepng approach to funding and the management of resources. They have worked hard, with a skeleton staff, and have put in enormous effort. If the Government are as dedicated to such values as they keep saying that they are, they ought to recognise that the people at the Almeida have put in an enormous amount of work for little reward, being dedicated solely to creating a vibrant and exciting artistic institution.

The theatre has made strenuous efforts to seek private sponsorship for its activities and has been successful to a limited extent, but there are limits to the amounts that private companies are prepared to put into experimental theatre of the type that the Almeida is particularly interested in promoting.

The theatre has used pricing policy to good effect. Seat prices have been raised as high as possible, without losing custom and reducing the size of audiences. In all possible respects, the theatre has adopted a sensible and cost-effective approach to the business of putting on theatrical productions. It is sad that there is no guarantee that the money that the theatre receives from the GLC, both in capital and revenue terms, will be replaced when the council is abolished.

The other artistic institution in my constituency about which I am particularly worried is the Sadler's Walls theatre, which has a long and honourable history, going back far beyond the innovative and recent development of the Almeida theatre.

The recent announcement of the Arts Council that Sadler's Wells and four other so-called receiving theatres would not receive Arts Council funding after abolition has thrown the theatre into a deep and distressing quandary. The decision by the Arts Council not to provide any replacement funds for the receiving theatres runs contrary to the apparent assurances that were given to Sadler's Wells in the past. I quote first from a letter written on 16 April 1984 by Lord Gowrie, who wrote to the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), who had taken up the question of Sadler's Wells funding: When I met representatives from Sadler's Wells last December (1983), I undertook to consider their case for some form of central funding. I am glad to say that it will now be possible for Sadler's Wells to apply to the Arts Council to make up the deficit in their funding caused by the abolition of the GLC. Final decisions as to the distribution of new funds will of course rest with the Arts Council"— this is the get out— but I am sure that they will sympathetically consider any approach made by Sadler's Wells. If sympathetic consideration is a rejection of any replacement funding, I shudder to think what unsympathetic consideration might be.

Subsequent to that, on 23 September this year, the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce), now the Minister for the Arts, wrote to the chairman of Sadler's Wells: I appreciate Sadler's Wells' worries and I can assure you that the Arts Council are aware of them too. As you know, the GLC's grant to the theatre was taken into account in calculating the £16 million additional funding which the Government has already announced for the Arts Council. If the Sadler's Wells grant was taken into account in the original £16 million, why, now that the amount is £25 million rather than £16 million, is Sadler's Wells not to get any funding that has been made available to the Arts Council?

It must also be borne in mind that the £267,000 for which Sadler's Wells has applied represents only slightly above 10 per cent. of its gross turnover. It is not asking for massive funding of large proportions of its operations. It is asking only for that amount that is the shortfall that it needs to remain viable in business. It has made strenuous efforts to attract private sponsorship and commercial support. In 1985–86, that amount will reach over £350,000. However, it cannot, in the 15 weeks left to it between the announcement of the Arts Council decision and the start of the next financial year, find the further £250,000 that it will require to make up the shortfall, because no funds are now available.

The Government's decision, through the Arts Council, not to provide funds to Sadler's Wells will undermine the confidence which private and commercial sponsors will wish to see before they put funds in the theatre when the GLC goes. The point that so far has been consistently made in terms of both the Almeida theatre and Sadler's Wells by Government Ministers when they talk about these matters is that the local borough should pick up some of the tab when the GLC goes.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

I endorse everything that my hon. Friend has said about the Almeida theatre and Sadler's Wells, being an admirer of both. Will he consider the problem of many other theatres in London, particularly innovative local community theatres such as the St. George's theatre in Tufnell Park in my constituency, as also being serious? The real problem is that the Government should be providing sufficient money to make up for the shortfall following the appalling decision to abolish the GLC in the first place.

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith , Islington South and Finsbury

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. These examples from my constituency are but two among many that will be affected by the decision to abolish the metropolitan county councils and the GLC.

I noticed that the hon. Lady the Under-Secretary was nodding when I said that the successor authorities are expected to pick up the tab. That claim ignores the fact that the borough already provides both theatres with some support. In revenue terms, the amount is small but, in terms of a 25 per cent. contribution to partnership funding for capital works in both theatres, it is substantial. In addition, both theatres receive their mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief and the discretionary 50 per cent. rate relief, which represents a substantial contribution from the borough's ratepayers in forgone rate income.

Photo of Mr Clement Freud Mr Clement Freud , North East Cambridgeshire

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government's claim also ignores the promise that the Minister for the Arts made to the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts that there would be sufficient Government money to continue supporting GLC and metropolitan counties' arts enterprises?

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith , Islington South and Finsbury

Yes indeed. There is quite clearly insufficient money to continue the full operations of the artistic institutions that are supported by those councils which are about to be abolished.

Two other factors must be borne in mind when the Government say that the borough must pick up the tab. First, the borough of Islington is rate capped. We were told only this week that a reduction of 18 per cent. in rates levied on the people of Islington is demanded by the Government in the coming financial year. How will the additional money that will be required be found from a diminishing pool to support those theatres when the GLC goes? Secondly, the theatres do not relate solely to a small community — they represent borough and regional resources. It can be argued that their attraction goes beyond the capital city. It is up to the Government to recognise, through the Arts Council, that they have a relevance beyond Islington.

I call on the Government to do three things, and I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to give me some assurances. First, they should admit the gross inadequacy of the £25 million that is being made available to the Arts Council as replacement funding. Secondly, they should recognise the special status of these valuable artistic institutions as regional resources rather than merely local ones. Thirdly, they should show some shred of recognition that the arts are essential to our community, and that they are not a luxury to be cut as a result of easy whim.

The arts are an essential part of the civilization that goes with a democracy. If these theatres and others like them suffer as a result of lack of financial commitment from the Government, the quality of life in Britain will be diminished. Heaven knows, life in Islington is hard enough. These two artistic institutions provide a little joy to my constituents. The Government are full set on a course that will remove that joy.

Photo of Mrs Angela Rumbold Mrs Angela Rumbold , Mitcham and Morden 1:50 pm, 20th December 1985

I reiterate the apologies of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts, who cannot be present to respond to the debate. As the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said, my hon. Friend has explained to him that he is in Brussels and has offered to meet him in the new year. If I am unable fully to cover all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend will write to him.

The hon. Gentleman felt that it was important that Government, among others, should continue to encourage the arts. I do not think that anyone would disagree with that. Indeed, I believe that the Government have fully demonstrated, by their actions, that they are committed to that.

It may be helpful if I begin by outlining our position on funding the arts after abolition. The Government have always recognised that abolition of the GLC and metropolitan county councils would have important implications for arts funding, bearing in mind the prominent role which the GLC and MCCs have taken in this sphere. As a result, on 11 April 1984 the then Minister for the Arts announced that the Government would make available £34 million in 1986–87 to replace GLC and MCC expenditure on the arts. That comprised £16 million for the Arts Council, £1 million for the British Film Institute and £17 million for museums. Those figures were based on the estimates then available of actual expenditure in 1983–84, adjusted forward for inflation to 1986–87, and after allowing for a take-up of essentially local activities by the successor districts and borough councils, which were, of course, being relieved of the significant GLC and MCC precepts. I should stress that at no time have we committed ourselves to making up the total deficit, because we consider there is a proper role for local funding. Similarly, we have never committed ourselves to funding additional activities and commitments which the GLC and MCCs have entered into after 1983–84, which may be part of the problem.

Nevertheless, during the course of 1985–86 many representations were made to my hon. Friend and his predecessor, Lord Gowrie, by the Arts Council and others, that the original calculations on which the £16 million had been based omitted significant arts expenditure that was either carried by the GLC and MCCs on other budgets or related to bodies that had come into operation after 1983–84. They also argued that the Government's funding should be increased to take account of the general expansion in arts spending by the GLC and MCCs that had taken place since 1983–84. A case was also made by the British Film Institute for additional post-abolition funding for film projects.

On 14 November, my hon. Friend announced the Government's response to those various representations. He announced that the Government were raising the £16 million allocated to the Arts Council to £25 million and the £1 million allocated to the British Film Institute to £1·3 million. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would recognise that Sir William Rees-Mogg has played a significant part in enabling that increase to take place.

My hon. Friend also announced that the Arts Council's basic grant, excluding post-abolition funding, would be raised to £110·6 million, thus giving it a total grant of £135·6 million for 1986–87.

Together with the £17 million already announced for museums, this brings to over £43 million the Government's provision for post-abolition funding of the arts. It demonstrates our determination to maintain the level of Government support and to give arts bodies in the GLC and metropolitan areas a good foundation on which to build.

Nevertheless, the Arts Council figure of £25 million still leaves districts and boroughs to make a vitally important contribution. The Arts Council's estimate was that to meet all current arts requirements it would need £35 million. This seems to be slightly unreasonable because there is cause to expect districts and boroughs to bridge the gap when they will have been relieved of precepts to a much greater value than this sum—by definition, about £35 million said to be the current GLC-metropolitan county councils' contribution.

We believe strongly that local arts must have a base of local funding. If this is not forthcoming, or if successor authorities are unwilling to contribute adequately, it must call into question whether the arts are seen as sufficiently worthwhile in the area. I am sure that such a question does not arise in the hon. Gentleman's area.

The hon. Gentleman will be grateful to know that, in spite of the rate capping of Islington council, it will have the ability, because of the favourable grant that it has been given—about £11 million in excess of what it received last year—if it is prepared to look carefully at its expenditure, to contribute to the arts within its total budget. I trust that he will look at that with interest, if not with favour.

The Government take the view that there is a strong obligation on districts and boroughs to assess need in their areas and to meet it, often on the basis of matching contributions from central Government via the Arts Council. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is not for the Minister to dictate which project should be helped, although my hon. Friend has done his best to ensure that there is enough money to go round.

Photo of Mr Chris Smith Mr Chris Smith , Islington South and Finsbury

The hon. Lady refers to an additional £11 million going to the borough. She will appreciate that that must cover everything that the GLC at present provides for the people of Islington. She is suggesting that the total grant requirements of Sadler's Wells and the Almeida theatre, which between them—two artistic institutions alone — amount to £600,000, should come out of that £11 million. That, surely, is impossible.

Photo of Mrs Angela Rumbold Mrs Angela Rumbold , Mitcham and Morden

I was merely suggesting that there should be some constribution, as the local contribution, from that money to help the Sadler's Wells and the Almeida theatre.

I come to the specific point that the hon. Gentleman made about Sadler's Wells and the general case that he put. The Arts Council said recently that it would not assume responsibility for the metropolitan counties' funding of receiving theatres, including Sadler's Wells. This is entirely consistent with the council's normal funding policy, which is to fund performance, not buildings.

The council firmly believes that it is for local authorities to provide and maintain buildings, but it has undertaken that, where it can assist other arts bodies in a particular district, it will do so, taking full account of the fact that the successor authority is shouldering its responsibility for receiving theatres.

My hon. Friend has received strong representations from a number of the arts bodies affected by the Arts Council's decision not to provide receiving theatres with replacement money. On 9 December he met representatives of Sadler's Wells, who told him of their anxieties.

My hon. Friend has much sympathy with these bodies. Equally, he understands the Arts Council's reluctance to break with its longstanding policy of not funding receiving theatres. He therefore welcomed and has commended to the affected bodies the council's clear indication that it was prepared to take into account successor authorities' funding of receiving theatres when considering the funding of other arts organisations in their areas. He believes firmly that funding of arts bodies should be a joint activity, bringing together the Arts Council and/or regional arts associations in partnership with local authorities and other local interests.

The Almeida is a producing house as well as a receiving theatre and the council has told my hon. Friend that it will be considering its case for replacement funding, in line with the claims of all other bodies presently funded by the GLC. The council does not expect to be able to announce its decision on funding for a few weeks.

As I have explained, we see funding of the arts as a plural activity; central Government have an important part to play but so, too, have local government and the private sector. We believe that we have upheld our part of the funding. Although the hon. Gentleman will not like what I am about to say, I shall reiterate that since the Government came to power in 1979 we have increased total central arts expenditure by nearly 10 per cent. in real terms and increased the Arts Council's basic budget by about 7 per cent. These figures take no account of the additional funding that we have provided to replace arts spending by the GLC and MCCs.

We believe that the Government have met their commitment, and through their provision of over £43 million for total post-abolition funding, including £25 million for the Arts Council, have recently given a generous lead to the successor authorities in the abolition areas.