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Arts Funding

Volume 405: debated on Monday 19 May 2003

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What support her Department is giving to arts centres and theatres in smaller towns in the north-west. [113829]

My hon. Friend knows that this Government have done more to support the arts in this country than any of our predecessors. He also knows that Arts Council England North West will see its overall allocation increase from £20.8 million to £28.4 million by 2005–06, which is an increase of 37 per cent. That new money will benefit a wide range of artists, organisations and communities across the region, including those in Burnley.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he accept, however, that it is important that not only big cities but small non-unitary authorities, such as Burnley, have arts centres and theatres? We find it difficult to preserve what we have: an excellent theatre, the Mechanics, and the Mid-Pennine Arts Centre. With small budgets, non-unitary authorities have extreme difficulties in that regard.

Yes, there is a problem, and it is often a problem of knowing how to frame bids and having the aspirations to bid in the first place. Knowing what support is available, and ensuring that the expertise exists to help excellent small theatres such as those in my hon. Friend's constituency to make those bids is a real problem, which we recognise. We are making sure that the organisation is aware of those deficiencies in some areas and that it does all that it can to help people to make those bids.

Will the Minister go further and share my concern that in many places, in small towns such as Macclesfield and Burnley and the surrounding areas of those towns, a huge wealth of artistic talent exists that is not able to display itself because of the lack of adequate theatres to put on amateur productions? Cannot the Government act directly, or through the lottery, to provide more funds for the establishment of adequate theatres, so that the United Kingdom can display its huge wealth of talent?

That was a passionate defence of some of the excellent theatres in the north-west. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that there has never been as much money for theatres, whether in the regions, in rural areas, in small towns or big cities, as is available at the moment. Combined with that is the fact that many of those theatre companies have recognised that they have a great task in trying to tap the talent, about which he has spoken so eloquently, in our schools and in our communities generally. That is where much of the money is being directed. It is not simply about being able to put on great performances in theatres, or even about the upkeep of the theatres themselves. It is also about trying to nurture that talent so that the next generation of actors, directors and writers can emerge. If we do not do that, we kill great theatre at birth.

Will my hon. Friend offer his full support to Friends of the Winter Gardens theatre in Morecambe, who have been campaigning for years to restore the town's theatre? Does he accept that it is important for a seaside resort to have a theatre? I know that he is aware of the Winter Gardens theatre, because he visited it when he visited Morecambe recently.

The theatre is a magnificent building and has been kept in that state mainly by the work of volunteers. I know that my hon. Friend has been active in that respect. The theatre is also in a unique position, with a magnificent view across to Lakeland. Nevertheless, all funding agencies have to be extremely careful about the allocation of large amounts of capital money, in view of the record of buildings being financed in the absence of plans to build up audiences and make performances sustainable. If the theatre in Morecambe could be rejuvenated in every sense, it could be one of the great attractions of a town that has been one of the north-west's great resorts over the years. I know that my hon. Friend is speaking to a great many people about how it can be part of a more holistic approach to redeveloping that resort, which she has the privilege to represent.