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Arts (Small Towns)

Volume 403: debated on Monday 7 April 2003

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What support her Department offers to small towns without theatres, galleries, or museums to create such facilities. [107048]

The majority of the funding that my Department provides for theatres, museums and galleries is broadly directed to supporting existing cultural institutions, aiming to broaden access and attract new audiences. We do, however, offer support to new facilities in a number of ways. As far as theatres are concerned, that comes through the Arts Council of England, a lottery distributor that can provide funding and advice at a regional level. In the museums and galleries sector, through our £70 million investment in the renaissance in the regions initiative, a network of regionally based museum development officers will be established to help small and medium-sized museums, and grants for museums will continue to be available from the regional agencies.

There must be many small and middle-sized towns such as Skelmersdale, which has a population of 42,000, yet has no theatre, no gallery, no museum and no cinema, although there is substantial demand that is met only at the margins by make-do venues in schools and the library. Does my right hon. Friend agree that up-to-date cultural venues have an important part to play in economic regeneration in towns such as Skelmersdale; and does he therefore agree that some of the grant aid earmarked by the Government for economic regeneration should be used to help communities like Skelmersdale establish such cultural venues?

The answer is obviously yes, but to a large extent local authorities or partnerships drive that process. We are not imposing it from the centre, and I do not think that my hon. Friend would want that to happen, either. In terms of theatres, a dialogue with the Arts Council of England should take place at a regional level. My hon. Friend should visit his local authority to ask what it is doing proactively to try to deliver the types of facilities that he wants.

Will the Minister take steps to ensure that boroughs such as the London borough of Havering are given a fairer share of grant aid for museums and for our local theatre in Hornchurch? Many boroughs on the outer rim of London are not getting their fair share in that respect: will he ensure that we do in future?

We want to be fair. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I will look into what is happening in relation to the funding agencies and the formula that has been applied to that part of London. I shall try to be as helpful as I can.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills in relation to bids for specialist schools in the arts? In Sittingbourne, which has a population of 42,000—about the same as that which my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) mentioned—we, too, have no museums, art galleries and the like. If there was some combination between the work of the two Departments there is just a chance that our schools might get specialist status in the arts.

There are 173 specialist arts colleges; I do not know whether any of them fall within my hon. Friend's constituency. We do have a dialogue with other Departments about trying to use the arts and, indeed, sport and physical activity. One of those with which we have the most proactive approach is the Department for Education and Skills, which is making a difference in arts colleges and specialist sports colleges. If my hon. Friend writes to us, we will try to be helpful in providing information.

Let them come to Lichfield, which has a population of only 35,000 but boasts the Garrick theatre, which is an eco-friendly theatre that is about to open. Of course, David Garrick was born and brought up in Lichfield. A new arts gallery will shortly open and my constituency contains the St. Mary's heritage centre. However, may I ask the Minister about smaller theatres such as that in Pipe Ridware in my constituency? It has only 70 seats yet still puts on performances. It has been unable to secure grants from the Arts Council of England or any other organisation that gives lottery grants because such organisations say that the theatre must provide training schemes for young people in the area. That is impossible for such a small theatre, so how can we get round the problem?

That investment shows very clearly that we do not discriminate against Tory constituencies. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was advertising tourism and inward investment when he got to his feet and extolled the virtues of his constituency. I obviously cannot respond to his specific point but if he writes to me, I shall take it up with the Arts Council because I assume that the theatre has been in contact with that body.

I have said clearly that we want viable theatres of the nature that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I stress that the broad approach of our policy is to try to get current facilities and investment to work as efficiently and effectively as possible. That is the right approach and after we have achieved that, we can move on to further developments for arts, museums and galleries.