I want to start by thanking the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport team for their engagement and accessibility during the pandemic.
Heywood and Middleton is not a part of the world necessarily known for its arts scene, but the cultural sector plays as important a role in my constituency as it does in, for example, the west end or central Manchester. Rochdale borough, where my seat is located, has one of the lowest levels of cultural engagement in the north-west. In fact, it is in the bottom 1% of areas for culture accessibility. That is why the ability for what we do have to rebound is so essential.
When I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the money received to support Rochdale Boroughwide Cultural Trust’s Link4Life was a genuine lifeline, I mean it. The generous injection of funds to our borough was the difference between it being able to carry on or not. I want to pay particular tribute to Jan Hind and Darren Grice at Link4Life for their passion and enthusiasm for our communities and for the work they have done to make Rochdale’s cultural sector not just viable but an integral part of our plans to level up an area of extremely high deprivation. By integrating their offering into the borough’s plans for education, employment and regeneration, they have not only created a vibrant cultural scene but a sustainable commercial one, ensuring that a wider range of options can be offered and maintained, while bringing existing assets up to date and integrating them into each township in the borough in a way that recognises the character and history of each community yet opens those communities to new experiences at the same time.
The hard work of Jan, Darren and the Link4Life team has seen Dippy the Dinosaur visit Rochdale from the Natural History Museum, a west end production supported by Selladoor put on at the Middleton Arena, and overall engagement with cultural activities in the borough increased by a factor of seven. To have lost that during the pandemic when it was just ramping up would have been an absolute tragedy. It would have robbed some of the most deprived communities in the country of a programme of events, assets and engagement that we simply would not be able to access elsewhere. I also thank them for the work they have done to engage both me and Tony Lloyd at every step, so that we are not just aware of where they are at the moment, but what their longer-term aspirations are for Heywood, Middleton and Rochdale. That is why I also back their application for the leisure recovery fund, which will see much-needed assets returned to use, improving health and wellbeing, both physical and mental, as we return life to normal.
Sociologist Charles Cooley once opined:
“An artist cannot fail;
it is a success to be one.”
I am not sure that someone could say that about politicians, but I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to my right hon. Friend and the Department for his success here. By taking the action that he has taken, he has done so much more than safeguard a few assets, buildings or a business plan; he has ensured the recovery of our dreams, our hopes and our ambitions. That is not a bad thing at all.