Orders of the Day — The Arts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:37 pm on 13th March 1989.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 8:37 pm, 13th March 1989

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack). I listened with great interest to the paean of praise that he delivered to the Minister, although a little later he let slip that he would like to be in his place. I think that he would make a very good Minister in a Conservative Government, although he is not always certain that he is wholly with his own party, and for that reason we like him even more. I hope that I do not do him a disservice in urging his appointment on his colleagues, any more than he did for me in revealing to a startled world that we were together last week in the United States of America.

I have one major disappointment I will announce immediately and that is the debate will not be graced by the presence of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) who brings a certain muscular approach to the arts that we find at least amusing, and from time to time he even stumbles on a grain of truth. But we know that his contribution to the arts in Britain resembles that of the Luftwaffe to town planning.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) on initiating the debate. Indeed, I was impressed by his range of talents. I am surprised that he bothered to come into politics. He obviously could have pursued a profitable and, who knows, a more rewarding career elsewhere. Perhaps he too aspires to sitting on the Front Bench as Arts Minister. There are quite a few on the Government Benches, and one or two on the Opposition Benches, who would like to be considered if a short list were to be drawn up.

The hon. Member for Battersea commented on the fact that the Prime Minister has been "greened" recently. His one mistake was to bring her into any consideration of artistic matters. We all know that she is into re-reading Freddie Forsyth and going to "The Mousetrap". I suppose that that is a start, but she has a long way to go before she can genuinely claim to be one of the muses—[Interruption.] I am afraid that good taste makes it impossible for me to answer that question.

I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Battersea's kids go to the Ernest Read children's concerts at the Royal Festival hall. I acquired what taste I have in musical appreciation by going to the Robert Mayer concerts in the Central hall and then in the Royal Festival hall. I want to say how deeply grateful I am to the Inner London education authority for all the benefits that it gave me through opportunities to go to concerts, plays and other artistic events. I hope that the Minister and some of his colleagues realise what great damage they have done to the arts and to the artistic education of young children by destroying ILEA.

The hon. Member for Battersea mentioned the Royal Festival hall. I hope that he goes over and enjoys the open foyer policy that was pioneered by the Greater London council when I chaired the arts committee. There was an empty space, much like the empty space in Westminster hall that I complained about earlier this afternoon. It is criminal to have so much empty space when so many young artists—dancers, sculptors or painters—would like to use that space to display their talents to an appreciative world.

I noticed that during the day the Royal Festival hall was used just by people, mostly from Shell middle management, who came to a rather over-priced restaurant. The rest of the place was empty. I thought that the best thing to do was to turn that space to use. It was a great move by the GLC to open up the Royal Festival hall, with 25,000 people a week coming in at lunchtime to enjoy the free music and the various exhibitions, and perhaps overcoming the fear of the threshold that many people have when they view great artistic buildings.

The sordid bit that I leave to the end is that it was good value for the ratepayers of London because it made money. The GLC did not turn away from that, because it meant that not only were we involving more people in the arts, but we were providing more funds for other artistic activities in the capital. I am delighted that the South Bank board retained the open foyer policy of the Royal Festival hall that it inherited.

I am alarmed and concerned at the proposals that are emerging from Mr. Stuart Lipton and Mr. Terry Farrell for the south bank. I am sure that Mr. Lipton is altruistic and that his only concern is the welfare of the arts in London, but more cynical Members might suggest that he wants a return on the £200 million of investment that he intends to put into the south bank. I am worried about that because for such investment he will require a commercial return and commercial activity that could grate against what has been achieved so far.

I do not believe that such an important development should be something upon which the Minister says nothing. I am ready to give way to the Minister at any time. The matter is too significant to be left in the hands of a non-elected body—the South Bank board—account-able to no one save the Arts Council and therefore himself. Certainly, it is not accountable to the people of London, or to the people of Lambeth or Southwark who live in the immediate vicinity. That sort of development should be left to private developers, looking for a return on capital, and to a non-elected body.

That the Minister says nothing about it is not right. It could be argued that it is the cultural centre not only of the capital but of the whole country. That being so, the Minister should intervene and at least let us know exactly what he intends to do. He does not want to intervene. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), the next Arts Minister, wants to intervene. No, he does not.