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The Arts

Volume 194: debated on Monday 1 July 1991

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New Opera House


To ask the Minister for the Arts if he will consider funding the building of a new opera house in London.

London already has two large-scale opera houses and an increasing range of other places in which opera is performed. Much as I might personally welcome it, I see no need for a further opera house.

Although one would not expect a Tory Government to emulate a French socialist President, will the Minister confirm that Covent Garden's subsidy averages about £40 per seat per performance? Nevertheless, when great stars appear at Covent Garden, few ordinary people can see their performances because of business subscriptions and the prior claim to seats that many other people have. Does the Minister agree that there is a case to be made for staging productions with world-famous stars at a much bigger auditorium, so that the benefits of subsidy can be enjoyed by a much larger number of people?

Despite the fact that the French have just built a new opera house, there are many more opera performances in London than in Paris. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a need to present opera to a wider audience, which is why I am happy that a number of groups, such as Opera 80, Opera Factory, and Mecklenburgh Opera, perform in small theatres throughout London. The Royal Opera house has reduced the proportion of its income that is derived from subsidy from 53 per cent. five years ago to 37 per cent. now. It also plans to stage at Kenwood and in the piazza outside Covent Garden popular productions that will be seen by many thousands of people.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that as no one would attend the opera unless it was subsidised from the public purse, even contemplating the building of a new opera house would place another millstone around the taxpayers' neck?

I am bound to remind my hon. Friend that when the Royal Opera house stages and records "Carmen" in the open air in the piazza, there will be no direct cost to the taxpayer. I hope that my hon. Friend himself will take the opportunity to sample the delights of "Carmen".

Most right hon. and hon. Members, although perhaps not all, will have been disappointed by the Minister's reply to the original question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser). Will the Minister consider two related points? First, English National Opera's lease on the London Coliseum expires in 1996, when it will be the only national company without a permanent home. Secondly, the London Coliseum and other great cultural buildings incur high maintenance costs. The Minister will know that the Tate, for example, has holes in its roof and needs to spend £27 million, and that the national gallery, where the new Sainsbury wing is to open tomorrow, needs £20 million spent on it. Is not that an appalling indictment of 12 years of Government incompetence and neglect? Does the Minister have a policy, and what does he intend to do about the English National Opera's lease and our great cultural buildings?

I am well aware that English National Opera's lease expires in 1996. The Arts Council, others and I are in negotiation with the owners of the lease to find out on what terms it might he continued so that ENO can continue the great run of successes that it has had at the Coliseum. As regards the wider question raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) Labour's arts policy on such difficult issues has the size and originality of a postage stamp. I wrote an article in Saturday's The Daily Telegraph about encouraging business sponsorship of the arts. What do I find? Most of my arguments were repeated by the hon. Gentleman in The Mail on Sunday yesterday, bringing to mind the old saying of Tom Lehrer,

"Plagiarise, plagiarise, let nothing evade your eyes."

Symphony Concerts


To ask the Minister for the Arts how many symphony concerts by symphony orchestras or sinfoniettas receiving publicly funded support took place in London in June.

I do not have information on the number of concerts funded by local government, but I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that 46 concerts were given by symphony orchestras, sinfonietta and chamber orchestras in London in June with Arts Council support.

Does not that excellent figure of 46 reflect a superb range of concerts of great breadth and diversity and, as the BBC Promenade concert season is about to begin, reinforce London as the music capital of the world? Is not the figure noticeably better than that for Paris where there are larger subsidies?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, as I am sure does the whole House. He makes his point—dare I say it—on a high note. I congratulate him on behalf of the whole House on the fact that he has just been appointed to the Council of the Association of British Orchestras. There he will doubtless continue clearly to make his point about the success of London as a centre for music.

Regional Arts Boards


To ask the Minister for the Arts what progress has been made in setting up the new regional arts boards.

I am delighted to report that good progress has been made. Eight chairmen and one chairwoman have been appointed to nine of the 10 new boards, and the remaining board members have been, or are, in the process of being appointed.

All the new boards now have chief executives, and a start has been made on recruiting other members of staff. The new boards are, therefore, firmly on target to be fully operational by 1 October this year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, which shows great progress towards the establishment of a more cost-effective form of administrating the arts. Would he care to tell the House about the sort of savings that he might envisage as a result of doing away with a centralised bureaucratic structure and replacing it with a more clearly identifiable regional structure?

Yes, I am hoping that in the first stage of reorganisation there will be savings by 1993 on an annual basis of at least £1 million. All that money will then be available to go to arts companies, rather than to be spent on administration. That is a significant amount and I shall look for further savings once the new regional arts boards are fully in place and we can tell how the integrated structure between them and the Arts Council at the centre works out.

Can the Minister say how near he is to knowing which clients are to be retained by the Arts Council and which are to go to the regional arts boards? When does he expect that to be sorted out?

An initial list of delegated clients—as the phrase is—was announced by the Arts Council with my agreement a month or two ago. There will be no further delegations until the autumn of next year. Then, when the new national arts strategy has been delivered to me by the Arts Council, I shall take further decisions about the delegation of those companies that remain with the Arts Council.

Amateur Theatre


To ask the Minister for the Arts what measures he intends to take to promote amateur theatre in the regions.

Amateur theatre is traditionally self-reliant. In the past 25 years or so there has been a sustained growth in amateur theatre, which has been encouraged by the regional arts association network and local authorities.

Will my right hon. Friend have a word with North West Arts to find out whether it can get together with Warrington borough council to find a new home for the Centenary theatre group in Warrington which has been displaced out of Crosfields?

I am sorry to hear of that difficulty. Amateur theatre and the arts generally play a vital role in arts provision in all areas, including places with limited access to professional work. I have already taken up with the Arts Council the question of that little company and I am glad to say that the Arts Board: North West will be writing to my hon. Friend today to tell him what steps it proposes to take.

Grants (North-West)


To ask the Minister for the Arts what proportion of the Arts Council grant in 1991–92 has been allocated to the north-west of England; and if he will make a statement.

The Arts Council grant to Merseyside Arts and North West Arts and its own estimated direct spending in the region amount to nearly £9·5 million. This represents 4·9 per cent. of the total Arts Council grant.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the importance of the Arts Council grant to many of the cultural activities of the north-west. It is especially important to our orchestras, such as the Hallé and the Royal Liverpool philharmonic. Has my right hon. Friend any plans to assist the Royal Liverpool philharmonic with its ambitious project to expand and with its original costs, incurred by its taking over a new building in the centre of Liverpool?

I have met the chairman of the Hallé, and I know about its ambition to have its own concern hall in Manchester. That will require a good deal of money, but I hope that it will manage to raise considerable sponsorship, together with some support from the Arts Council. The appeal for the Royal Liverpool philharmonic is going well. I was delighted to be able to launch it some months ago. I hope that the Royal Liverpool philharmonic will soon have a redecorated home, and that the Hallé will have a new one.



To ask the Minister for the Arts if he will meet the chairman of the Arts Council to discuss support for poetry.

I meet the chairman of the Arts Council regularly for discussions on a range of subjects.

When the Minister next meets the Arts Council chairman, will he discuss with him the threat to the existence of the magazine Aquarius, which is published by Mr. Eddie Linden? This small poetry magazine requires very little financial support, although it has been a breeding ground for many a poet who has proceeded to become eminent and successful. Will the Minister arrange with the Arts Council chairman for an application for support to be made?

I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman's interest in this subject and in the literary magazine in question. I assure him that the Arts Council provides help for literary magazines—usually as a one-off, as it prefers to avoid long-term commitments. I understand that no approach has yet been made to the Arts Council about Aquarius, but, if such an approach is made, the Arts Council will certainly consider whether it can give the magazine reasonable assistance.