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Grassroots Arts and Culture: Luton

Volume 680: debated on Tuesday 22 September 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

It is a huge privilege to have my first Adjournment debate on grassroots arts and culture in Luton—my patch and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen). Luton has a long history of being a creative town, particularly since the 1800s, when we had a thriving straw plaiting and hat making trade. The wonderful Wardown House Museum and Gallery in Luton South has the most complete headwear and hat industry collection in the world, showcasing industry objects and paper archives relating to the English hat industry. At this stage, it would be remiss of me not to mention and thank the fantastic Museum Makers, a wonderful bunch of volunteers committed to supporting our museum in innovative ways.

Luton is a global town, where more than 130 different languages are spoken. Our super diversity has enabled a wide range of creative opportunities to flourish, which has an amazing impact on people’s day-to-day lives, from food to fashion, from dance to design. Participation in grassroots and community arts activity has played an important role in developing community cohesion, building social capital and enabling local people to lead happy, healthy and prosperous lives.

The importance of the arts should not be understated; when we are not at work, we all, in one way or another, spend our free time consuming art in all its forms. Whether it is TV, radio, magazines, music, art, online content—all of that has been created by people working in the arts and cultural sector. A recent Creative Industries Federation report states that, before the coronavirus pandemic and the attached health restrictions, the creative sector was growing at five times the rate of the wider economy, employing more than 2 million people and contributing £111 billion to the economy—more than the aerospace, automotive, life sciences and oil and gas industries combined.

The Luton arts and culture strategy group, made up of representatives from six of Luton’s key cultural organisations—Luton Borough Council, Revoluton Arts, Tangled Feet, the Culture Trust Luton, the UK Centre for Carnival Arts and the University of Bedfordshire—informs me that the creative industries in Luton contributed £36 million to the local economy in 2018, and leveraged an additional £3.2 million in inward investment in 2019. Luton’s cultural strategy has worked hard to embed arts and the creative sector at the heart of the sustainable transformation of our town, building shared growth through an inclusive local economy, developing skills and jobs and shaping town centre regeneration.

Last year saw Luton’s pilot year of culture, “People Power Passion”, a modern and exciting cultural programme that explored a key historical moment in Luton: the 1919 Peace Day riots, when local people burnt down the town hall in protest at being excluded by the bigwigs running the council after the first world war. We explored that through fantastic arts and cultural events, and while it was inspiring and enjoyable, the investment in this cultural programme, with diverse participants and audiences reflecting the whole of our community, importantly employed 84 artists, trained 13 young people from diverse backgrounds, worked with 400 local participants and engaged 138 volunteers. This participation of our community in large-scale outdoor cultural events builds on our spectacular one-day international carnival, our excellent mela and our vibrant St Patrick’s Day festival. Again, it is at this grassroots level that we see such fantastic work by local creatives, supported so well by local volunteers and charities.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important debate to the House. As well as volunteer organisations, Luton has fantastic events businesses, such as Creative8, which I visited last week. The events industry is vital not just for jobs but for our culture and our economy. Does she agree that, in order to protect all of that, it is vital that it gets specific support during this pandemic?

I thank my hon. Friend for making such a superb point. I absolutely agree that such business are vital to our creative and cultural sector and that they need that specific support. I may mention that later in my speech.

Luton’s most famous public artwork, “Beacon”, by Turner Prize-winning, Luton-born Mark Titchner, is a mural that shines out from the side of Luton’s Hat Factory arts centre, and has a simple message that inspires many of us, including budding artists:

“If you can dream it, you must do it.”

However, these dreams are at huge risk of being completely lost, as the global coronavirus pandemic has forced grassroots artists and local arts organisations, such as Next Generation youth theatre, to the brink of devastation. The arts sector was the first to close and will be one of the last to reopen, and this is leaving local creative businesses and freelancers fighting for their future. I am, therefore, deeply concerned that the Government’s response to the crisis fails to recognise the importance of grassroots arts and culture. Although the Government’s £1.57 billion covid-19 arts package is welcome, it is targeted at buildings and institutions, which means that it will fail to reach grassroots precarious workers, freelancers and self-employed entrepreneurs.

The Creative Industries Federation report projects that 122,000 permanent creative workers will be made redundant this year, including 42,000 jobs in the east of England, with the impact being felt twice as hard by freelancers, as 287,000 roles are expected to be terminated in the UK in 2020. The premature decision to end the job retention scheme before the sector has returned to pre-pandemic levels will fail to prevent rising unemployment. This will hamper both the economic recovery and the survival of the sector.

I have been in close contact with the grassroots Luton Creative Forum about the impact of the crisis. Its members tell me that they are fearful for the survival of the arts organisations, as many of them are accruing large debts with no indication of when they will be able to reopen. Pay-as-you-earn freelancers, the newly self-employed and those with less than 50% of their income through self-employment are all suffering, too, as they are excluded from Government support schemes.

My constituent Dan is one of those people excluded from support. Dan is an arts worker who earns a percentage of his income through PAYE and the remainder through self-employment. As Dan is married and his husband was furloughed, he has been unable to access Government support. This has left their joint income at below the minimum wage for one individual. This is a disgrace. With the continued impact of covid and venues not being able to reopen—we heard more about that today—and performances such as the usual Christmas pantomimes having to be cancelled, many partially self-employed workers like Dan, who rely on freelancing to top up their PAYE income, will be forced to take on more debt without targeted Government support.

Luton’s Next Generation youth theatre submitted an application to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recovery fund. It is great that it has been able to apply, but NGYT is the only organisation in Luton eligible to apply because of the restrictions on the fund, and it has yet to hear whether it has been successful.

The Government’s policies and the recovery fund are failing to meet the needs of grassroots organisations, and if these organisations fail, it will have a hugely damaging impact on the social value provided by the sector in Luton. I urge the Government to be more forward looking and to recognise the long-term social capital that can be provided by the grassroots arts sector.

We also know that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers will have widened owing to the pandemic. Across the country we have heard of some home-schooling difficulties and many families facing digital exclusion. In Luton, this is terrifying because 46% of children live in poverty, according to End Child Poverty.

The creative industries provide the Government with a vehicle to build back better. Research by the Cultural Learning Alliance shows that participation in structured arts activities can increase cognitive abilities by 17%, students from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree, and learning through arts and culture can improve attainment in maths and English and develop skills and behaviour that lead children to do better in school.

I urge the Government to consider innovative ways to make up for the educational impact of coronavirus through the benefits of supporting pupils to engage in grassroots arts and culture, building on the work of Luton Cultural Education Partnership, for example. A building back better agenda must recognise the diversity of our grassroots artists. Luton is proud of our community’s diversity, and by creating opportunities to address inequalities among the working class, black, Asian, non-white and ethnic minority communities, we have advanced community cohesion.

However, I am concerned that the Government’s economic schemes may perpetuate inequalities, as those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to suffer more, meaning they are less able to remain in the industry. The Government must make a concerted effort to create pathways for people from working-class, black, Asian, non-white and ethnic minority communities to rise to positions of leadership in arts and culture.

It is therefore disappointing that among the 10 members of the Government’s cultural renewal taskforce, only three are women, two are non-white British and none are independent artists. As the latest Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre report shows, those from privileged backgrounds are more than twice as likely to land a job in a creative occupation. They therefore dominate key decision-making roles in the sector and influence what appears on stage, page and screen.

Young people in Luton, just setting out on their career in the arts, need to see role models that look like them so that they can remain ambitious for their futures and feel confident that they can succeed. We sow the seeds of tomorrow today. What does that mean for the next generation? We are influenced and inspired by those we see in our community.

A number of brilliant creatives have come from Luton, whether it is the musician Paul Young, the actor Colin Salmon of James Bond fame, our national treasure and “Bake Off” winner Nadiya Hussain, or my good friend who sadly passed away a few years ago, Steve Dillon, or New Bloke, known internationally for his superb comic book drawing such as in “The Punisher” and “Preacher”—and I could go on. Not only have those people done much for art and culture; they have shown working-class young people from Luton that they can aspire to a creative career. However, we need to protect grassroots arts support and organisations to give our young people the opportunity to develop their craft and reach the same heights.

If the Government fail to protect the arts sector, not only will there be a short-term contraction of the sector, as actors, singers, artists and writers are forced into other work to survive, but it will have a long-term impact on the skills the sector needs to thrive, and a negative impact on our economic recovery and the renewal of our high streets. The Government have a choice: to empower people and their local community through grassroots arts and culture, or allow rising unemployment and debt and the devastation of a sector that everyone enjoys. To me, the people of Luton South and people across our town and the UK, the choice seems pretty simple.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) on introducing her first debate, which she did quite splendidly. This is a very important issue, and I think we are very much in agreement. Our cultural and creative sectors are one of the UK’s greatest success stories, one of our best calling cards and one of those things that really promote the levelling-up agenda. We also agree about the vital role that grassroots arts and culture play in binding local communities together. She is clearly a great champion for the arts in her area and she has really brought it to life this evening, as I am sure other Members will agree.

We know that Luton is a great example of how the power of art can bring communities together. That was incredibly apparent in the spectacular “People Power Passion” celebrations that lasted for two days last July. I very much appreciate her sharing with me the video of that wonderful event in her constituency. As she said, it was really dynamic and brought together people from different age groups and backgrounds not only among the performers, but in the audience. It was a really inspiring event and one that Luton should be super-proud of. Of course I also recognise the devastating impact that covid-19 has had right across our arts and culture, particularly on our grassroots venues that were forced to close in March. It has had a significant impact on businesses, staff, performers and all the many others who make these places such a wonderful part of our success story.

The Government have provided unprecedented support to the arts and culture sectors in response to the crisis and its impact on businesses and individuals. At the very beginning, Arts Council England very quickly delivered an emergency response package of £160 million of Government funding. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be aware of the many organisations and individuals working in Luton that have benefited from that emergency funding. Those include the brilliant Khayaal Theatre Company, which, as she knows, is a multi-award-winning drama education company, and Little Red Creative Studios, which is a centre for arts with a strong focus on community and accessibility, which I think we would all agree is super-important.

It is our real, sincere hope that this funding has provided a solid source of support at this incredibly challenging time and helped to preserve the creative ecology of the hon. Lady’s area, which she described so brilliantly. Of course, she mentioned—and the House will be aware of it—the £1.57 billion culture recovery fund. We are really clear that we expect the cultural sectors to represent our diverse society in their artistic talent, their workforce and their audiences. As with all Arts Council funding, the culture recovery fund will require all organisations in receipt of funds to demonstrate progress on things such as diversity and outreach over the coming years in return for our investment in their futures. To that end, they will be required to participate in a post-programme evaluation.

So far, grassroots music venues across England have been the first recipients of this funding, and the £3.36 million emergency grassroots music venues fund has been shared among 135 venues across England that applied for support. Those were places that were at imminent risk of collapse as a result of covid. I know that the hon. Lady will be delighted that the Bear Club and the Dallow Centre in Luton have been awarded funding through that scheme. They are much-loved cultural venues that are vital to the local cultural ecosystem, and I hope that will go some way towards helping them to weather the storm and continue to offer exciting and diverse programmes to the city.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that grassroots venues play such an important role in building many successful careers, bringing enjoyment to audiences of all ages and supporting local economies right up and down the country. We know that this is an incredibly challenging time and that many cultural organisations and individuals currently face significant difficulty and uncertainty.

I have met virtually weekly since February, at roundtables, representatives from right across the arts and culture sectors that I represent. I have met people from up and down the country—from all corners—on a very regular basis, just so that I can fully understand and fully get inside the pressures that they are facing. My team in DCMS has been working incredibly hard to try to find solutions that will support this vital sector going forward—ways to try to reopen venues that remain closed and to allow grassroots groups to begin again, obviously all the while maintaining social distancing, as we all need to.

The substantial Government funding package, which, as the hon. Lady knows, represents the largest ever investment in our culture and arts, will be used right across England to help support the performing arts, theatres, museums, heritage, galleries, independent cinemas and live music venues. The Arts Council has been chosen to administer that because it has the expertise to do it and to ensure that we are supporting individuals and venues at this challenging time.

Of course, this is about individuals. It is not just about buildings; it is about the people who bring these places to life. A big priority has been to try to resume cultural activity, albeit in a distanced way, because we know that, more than anything, our brilliant freelancers and individuals want to get back to work and do what they do best. However, we also know that, for some, that has not been possible, so, complementing this funding package, Arts Council England has announced £95 million of additional support for individuals, including freelancers. There will be a further round of its programme Developing your Creative Practice this autumn, which makes approximately £18 million available for individuals who want to develop new creative skills. It is also adding an extra £2 million to the relevant benevolent funds that have been set up across various sectors to support those who are less well supported by these programmes, such as stage managers and technicians.

Arts Council England is our national development agency for creativity and it has a strategic vision for the next 10 years, which I think the hon. Lady will appreciate. It is called Let’s Create and sets out that by 2030, England will be a country in which the creativity of each of us is valued and given the chance to flourish, and where everyone has access to a range of quality cultural experiences. With that in mind, it currently funds over 800 organisations right across the country as part of its national portfolio. That includes grassroots organisations and those that work to engage local communities. There are two in Luton, for example. There is the Culture Trust, supported for its work at the historical Wardown House, with the special exhibitions and the programme of arts that are local community-focused, and then, of course, there is the Luton carnival, which she mentioned. Alongside Arts Council funding, that is also backed by the local council and the UK Centre for Carnival Arts. I know that that is a hugely anticipated annual event, and it was very disappointing that May’s carnival was cancelled, but I am sure that it will come back bigger, stronger and better in 2021.

I am also really supportive of the Arts Council’s Creative People and Places project in Luton, with Revoluton Arts working across the Marsh Farm and Bury Park areas of Luton. They have delivered a number of brilliant creative programmes designed by and with the local community, with the purpose of encouraging more people to engage with the arts.

I hope that I have gone some way to reassure the hon. Lady that the Government truly believe in and recognise the power of art to transform places and, of course, to transform lives. They work to make the arts and the wider culture of museums and libraries an integral part of everyday public life, accessible to all and understood as absolutely essential to not only our national economy, but the health and happiness of society.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.