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Yorkshire Film Archive

Volume 454: debated on Monday 4 December 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to bring to the House’s attention a very real crisis affecting the Yorkshire Film Archive and the seven other regional film archives.

The Yorkshire Film Archive holds one of the most important products of the 20th century: the moving image heritage of the towns, cities, industries, leisure pursuits, people, cultures and traditions that make up Yorkshire today. The material is non-fiction and reflects the changing face of the Yorkshire region. The collections show our heavy, but sadly now disappearing, industries of coal, steel and textiles, as well as farming and fishing. They display cultural, traditional and leisure activities, childhood and schooling and landmark events such as the miners’ strike, as well as the ordinary lives of Yorkshire people.

The material comes from a variety of sources, such as the old dusty box that arrived one Saturday morning at the Yorkshire Film Archive offices at York St. John university college. It contained a collection of films created by two Leeds amateur film-makers, Betty and Cyril Ramsden, back in the 1950s. So superb were their films that the BBC used them for a complete episode of its “Nation on Film” series, giving tens of thousands of viewers an insight into Leeds life some 60 years ago. I was particularly interested in that programme because it included the famous Bryan’s fish and chip shop, in Headingley, where I spent most of my time while at college in Leeds in the early 1960s, partaking of its brilliant fish and chips.

This story is not unique. Across the country, reels of dusty films are being uncovered daily. They are some of the most important products of the 20th century—every bit as important and precious as the artefacts and paintings so carefully restored and retained in our museums, libraries and galleries. Crucially, all these materials are available to the public for a wide range of activities, including meeting the key objectives of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s own agenda.

The head of learning at YFA is working with museums to produce e-learning resources for the citizenship curriculum in primary schools, as part of the children and young people initiative to access cultural and educational opportunities. They are wonderful materials to use in the classroom. In North Yorkshire—in fact, in Knaresborough, in my own constituency—the Stroke Association has enjoyed stimulating presentations of local archive material that aid the recovery of stroke victims, who are often able to talk about events that occurred much earlier in their lives.

In the rural dales, people have packed Leyburn’s Elite cinema to see images of their communities over the decades. Both those activities fulfil the Department’s policy objective of

“Communities: enriching individual lives”—

It being Ten o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Steve McCabe.]

The Yorkshire Film Archive meets a third, equally vital departmental objective—

“Economy: maximising the economic contribution and productivity of the creative industries”.

In that regard, the film archive plays an important part in the region’s creative economy. ITV Yorkshire is currently working with the YFA to produce its fifth 10-part series of “The Way We Were”—a programme that regularly reaches 750,000 people. The BBC’s “Nation on Film” series relies heavily on materials provided by the YFA.

Like most regional film archives, the YFA began life as an amateur passion. It commenced in Ripon in 1988 as a small community history project before moving in 2003 to the public access learning centre at York St. John university. However, as a regional film archive, the YFA is unique, in that it is a charitable company, limited by guarantee with a board of trustees, chaired by Colin Philpot, the head of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. It has a small team of seven staff, led by the inspirational Sue Howard, who for the past 17 years has devoted her working life to building a regional archive of national repute.

Now, thanks to the generosity of the Yorkshire and Humber development agency, Yorkshire Forward, and the regional Heritage Lottery Fund—the HLF—and the foresight of the York St. John university, the YFA has a superb new home at the college. Through that investment, it has the technical capability of analysing, preserving, digitising and cataloguing moving images from a variety of formats dating back to the 1890s. But what it does not have is a firm future. Indeed, it is in danger of seeing the superb archives it has developed being mothballed and its ability to serve the Yorkshire community severely limited.

Without the further support of Yorkshire Forward and the HLF it is difficult to see how the archive can survive. But both organisations have made it clear that their support was short term and must not be seen as core funding. I fully accept the logic of their positions and, indeed, so does the YFA. The HLF was created as an investment vehicle, not for core revenue support, and it has already invested heavily in the YFA. Yorkshire Forward has been equally generous and I pay tribute to it for its treatment of the YFA. Yorkshire Forward has invested more than £1 million in the past four years because it believes the archive is a valuable social, historical and educational resource that should be available to a wider audience.

With the growth of the visual media as a valuable teaching and learning resource it would have been unacceptable to have left the YFA languishing in its previous state. But it is not the job of Yorkshire Forward, or any regional development agency, to take on a core funding role—that is the job of the Department. Unfortunately, it has not stepped up to the plate. There appears to be no national strategy for the regional film archives—the Minister may enlighten us this evening—and little recognition of their importance to regional communities. Either the Department is seriously under-estimating the value of the regional film archives or it is simply uninterested. I do not believe that it is the latter. Nor do I believe that for what is a relatively modest increase in core funding the Department would wish to see the demise of the YFA or indeed any of our regional archives, including the one in the north-east. I know that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), who is in her place, is very interested in that archive, and if she wishes to intervene, I will be happy to give way. With the loss of funding from Yorkshire Forward, probably by March 2007, there is the distinct possibility of the demise of the archive.

At present, core funding, which amounted to £260,000 in 2005-06 for all the film archives, comes direct from the UK Film Council, via regional screen agencies to regional film archives—a tortuous route, as I am sure the Minister agrees. Regional film archives receive on average less than £33,000 each, and the YFA receives the princely sum of £45,000 from Screen Yorkshire to meet current activity levels of £280,000. The YFA raises the rest from a variety of commercial sources and donations—the largest of which comes from Yorkshire Forward.

I am sure that the Minister accepts that both the total resource and the method of distribution are inadequate to sustain the regional film archives. As he knows, for the past three years there have been moves to create a national strategy for the film archives sector, but negotiations, led by the British Film Institute, have stalled. I plead with him to end the talking and set a firm date for the launch of a national strategy. Better still, will he take a leaf out of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council’s London book and agree to launch an inquiry into the role of regional museums, libraries and archives in the knowledge economy, including film archives?

It is my strong belief that the role of film archives in supplying information and inspiration to creative professionals in film, television and advertising contributes significantly to regional economies, but that thesis needs testing. There must be a strong case for placing moving film archives in the same category as museums, libraries and archives, with core funding to preserve, catalogue, digitise and present material for public use. Only by evaluating the activity that the Government and others expect from film archives can appropriate core funding be agreed and the regional film archives sustained.

I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Film archives continue to support the development of social and cultural understanding between the generations, for which their work should be recognised and supported throughout the country. I noted with interest that my excellent local newspaper, the Evening Chronicle, is encouraging readers to upload their footage of north-east history to online video-sharing sites, which is a fantastic opportunity for communities to preserve for ever their shared past. The archives can often be hard to access, however, and young people in particular are unaware of their existence. There is tremendous potential for us to engage people in visual history and we need to consider ways of making the regional film archives that the hon. Gentleman describes more widely accessible. Perhaps allowing some of their content to be shared for free, where it does not infringe copyright laws, would be a good opportunity to awaken people’s interest in our shared industrial, municipal and rural heritage.

I am delighted that the hon. Lady made that contribution, which I wholly support. However, does she share my genuine concern that it is not simply a matter of uploading content to the internet? One must then be able to use the material—to catalogue and manipulate it and bring it to a wider audience, as archivists do in the north-east and in Yorkshire and Humber. They digitise super-8 or 8 mm film and create a master copy, making the film available in a digital form that can easily be put to a variety of uses, especially as teaching material, in which I am particularly interested. It is extremely important that archivists can to go into schools and community groups, and even businesses, to sell their archives—I do not mean sell commercially. That is what I am arguing for tonight—that we try to maintain that very valuable resource.

A national film archive strategy without significant additional funding would be little more than an empty gesture. To survive, our regional archives require an additional £1.4 million a year—less than the cost of a bolt, without the nut, on the planned new nuclear submarine. If that amount cannot be found within the DCMS total budget, I would be genuinely surprised. The risk to the Yorkshire Film Archive is very serious. Without additional core funding to replace that of Yorkshire Forward and the Heritage Lottery Fund, staffing will be cut from seven to two from March, learning and access strategies would disappear, collections would not be developed, the ability to feed into a regional infrastructure to draw down additional funding would largely disappear and the ability to service broadcasters and other commercial users would decrease—and, with it, income—and the opportunity to contribute towards a national strategy would be limited.

More importantly, the Yorkshire Film Archive would lose the ability to deliver an effective public service to the people of Yorkshire and, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, the people of the north-east. It would lose the ability to demonstrate the real ongoing potential of the film archive sector to future stakeholders and funders. I welcome the Minister’s reply.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) on securing the debate. It is on an important subject and I am glad that he has raised it. I am also glad of the opportunity to reply to some of the points that he has raised this evening.

The hon. Gentleman quite rightly raised the profile of the Yorkshire Film Archive and, by association, the British Film Institute national archive. Not for one moment do we underestimate the significance of and contribution made by the film archive to our heritage in this country. It was put brilliantly by my noble Friend Lord Puttnam when he said simply that our “audio-visual heritage” was an essential part of a “vibrant and engaging” regional cultural heritage and social landscape. That is equally true of every region of the country and true of the regional archives that we want to see prosper and do well in the future.

The hon. Gentleman specifically raised the issue of the Yorkshire Film Archive, which has the responsibility of collecting and preserving the film heritage of a region and for making it accessible to the public. We recognise the problems faced as a result of complex sources of core funding and the dependency on several sources of finance. May I say at the outset that we, as the Government, want to find the best way that we can of using taxpayers’ money efficiently, providing value for money and supporting that archive?

To that end, it may be helpful if I briefly set out the current mechanisms that are used to fund organisations like the Yorkshire Film Archive. This year, in 2007-08, the YFA will receive £45,000 from the UK Film Council via Screen Yorkshire. As well as funding it, Screen Yorkshire and the UK Film Council will work closely with the YFA to establish a sustainable business plan. That will be developed through a national film strategy that the British Film Institute has been commissioned to produce—a strategy that I shall talk about later, but we intend to bring it forward for consultation early in the new year. I understand the pressing demands that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but it is important that the Government continue to have an arm’s-length relationship with delivery bodies, which produces the best results. Having said that, the Government also recognise the problems faced by individual archives.

The UK Film Council funds nine English regional screen agencies, including Screen Yorkshire, to the tune of about £7 million a year, which is intended to cover everything from training to film production, and screen commissions to education. The UK Film Council believes that it is better to delegate funding to the regions so that they can decide on their own local priorities and adapt funding to their specific needs.

Each screen agency may decide how best to distribute its core funding. Alongside that funding, Screen Yorkshire must find additional funding from other sources every year. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has raised that problem in this evening’s Adjournment debate. He rightly paid tribute to the role played by Yorkshire Forward in his area. Of course, we should also recognise the role played by other lottery distributors, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and the regional development agencies.

In 2003-04, English regional film archives used the investment from the regional screen agencies of about £216,000 to leverage a further £1.2 million—a sixfold return. None the less, we live in a tight spending environment. It is important that the DCMS and the UK Film Council continue to work hard to help the regional screen agencies to continue to lever additional funding against their core funding. Of course, we hope that the national film archive strategy, about which the hon. Gentleman speculated and which I shall adumbrate, will help the archives to leverage greater funding, and the DCMS is determined to work closely with all involved to achieve that.

We recognise the challenges that are faced none the less. However, we believe that delegated funding continues to present opportunity, as well as challenge. We also recognise that, to continue to be effective, consistency of funding and policy is better brought about by the creation of a national strategy for the film archive sector. Therefore the UK Film Council, in partnership with the BFI, is working hard to put in place that strategy.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we have a rich history of film in Britain. That history is, of course, important. The value of the archive to that heritage is indeed staggering, as it documents and wonderfully illustrates national and regional life over more than a century. The BFI national archive, for example, holds one of the largest and most important collections of moving images anywhere in the world.

Of course it is quite right that we recognise the importance of making the collections available to the public. Indeed, the public demonstrate their desire for such access. Recent programmes, such as “The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon”, with the BBC, showed everyday life in Edwardian Britain and attracted a television audience in excess of 4.5 million viewers a week—only a little short of that for the “The X Factor”. I therefore take this opportunity to congratulate the BFI on the way it is addressing that demand with its partnership agencies and producing a national strategy, while using new media technology, such as Screenonline, to make 300 hours of footage from the archive available on demand on the internet.

The Screenonline project also demonstrates how film archives have a unique opportunity to improve film education and to raise media literacy. Again, I pay tribute to the work of the Yorkshire Film Archive. It is an excellent example of how progress in such access is being driven locally. The YFA learning and access strategy works with local museums and schools in Leeds to create new e-learning resources that support the citizenship curriculum at key stage 2. It encourages and supports primary teachers and pupils to engage with the museum and archive collections. As the hon. Gentleman recognises, it is an invaluable tool and one that we must not lose.

I therefore wish to put on record this evening our appreciation in the DCMS specifically of the work of the Yorkshire Film Archive. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is driving key strategic objectives of the Department: increasing access, enriching individual lives and strengthening communities, maximising the economic contribution and ensuring that it operates efficiently, while delivering valuable services to the region.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) rightly recognised the importance of access, which is a pattern that can be found in all the screen agencies across the country. New technology is enabling those opportunities to be broadened. Digital copies are being made available across the UK. Digital moving images are now viewed on home computers, and in libraries and schools. Increasingly, it will be possible to view them in cinemas and other venues. They can easily be combined with interpretative and contextual material when required and they can be reformatted to meet the specific needs of different audiences.

I pay tribute to the work done by the Stroke Association, which the hon. Gentleman referred to in relation to his constituency. That work involves the imaginative use of this kind of material to deal with people who may have lost their memory and have all kinds of communication problems. The material is used to find ways of stimulating those people and engaging them in ways that otherwise could not be found. The work that the Stroke Association has done in his constituency is exemplary. I am sure that it happens elsewhere, but together with my officials I have already had the opportunity of looking at that work and wanted to pay tribute to the association for that this evening.

There are many other challenges beyond those raised by the hon. Gentleman. Intellectual property poses on the one hand an enormous opportunity for film archives, but on the other, because of the issue of rights, another problem. I remind him that the Gowers report, which will be published later this week, will address some of those issues of copyright and intellectual property. I am sure that he will find the issues that will be raised by Gowers in that report of specific interest in relation to the Yorkshire Film Archive. I look forward to discussing with him and other hon. Members some of the implications of that report for film.

Harnessing digital technology will enable our film heritage to reach a wider and more diverse audience—exactly the kind of thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West referred to in her contribution. Equally, the work of the UK Film Council digital screen network will make a vital and important contribution to widening access.

A further challenge raised by the hon. Gentleman is how we ensure that our archive is protected and preserved. We will also need investment in information management and comprehensive cataloguing of the collections to ensure that they operate to the highest standards. All those things are being encompassed by the work of the new national archive strategy. Those critical challenges and opportunities will, and should be, embraced within that strategy. To achieve that we will need a co-ordinated champion and voice for archive film. There is a role there for the DCMS and the UK Film Council, but also for the film heritage group. Together, they should co-ordinate the profile of film archiving.

All that will be embraced within the compass of the work of the national film archive strategy. The BFI has established the film heritage group to bring together and execute the strategy. I know that the Yorkshire Film Archive is already playing an important role in devising that strategy. We will draft the strategy for the beginning of next year and we plan to publish it early in 2007. Then the work will go out for wider consultation. Not only do we want to hear from those who may contribute to widening access and ensuring that the maximum number of people are able to use that enormous element of our country’s heritage, but we need to involve public and private funders alike in looking at the long-term sustainable future of this invaluable resource for our nations.

The critical purpose of the strategy is to co-ordinate common standards of preservation and access, and to determine standards and drive them forward in relation to the care of the collection, its management and access. We must ensure that high-quality projects deliver public access through the full range of new and emerging media. Work must be done in partnership with communities, libraries, schools, cinemas, museums and broadcasters. Of course, the strategy must address the urgent needs in relation to sustainable long-term funding and investment for moving-image archives. That will be done through partnerships and commercial ventures. It can also continue to be done by grants. However, it is essential that that future be sustainable. It is precisely because we want this to be a long-term sustainable project and we do not want existence to be hand to mouth—I am talking about all those invaluable resources, in relation to which there must be wide access as well as protection—that we believe that the strategy and the current archive work is so important in the world of film.

I hope that the House will look forward to receiving the plan and helping in the discussion and consultation that will follow its delivery. It is about sustainability, and similarly, the way forward for the Yorkshire Film Archive must be to develop a sustainable business plan alongside and as part of that national strategy so that the archive may continue to provide material—whether that is by way of the material that it provides to the Stroke Association, or for the benefit of all the constituents of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West—and, in the long term, ensure that everyone in the United Kingdom can benefit from the fabulous audiovisual heritage of our past.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock.