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Battersea Arts Centre

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 1 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will make representations to Wandsworth Borough Council about the likely impact of the threatened closure of Battersea Arts Centre upon the arts in London.

My Lords, as the Government spokesman for Wales in your Lordships’ House, I wish everyone a very happy St David’s Day.

Battersea Arts Centre makes a valuable contribution to the cultural and artistic life of Wandsworth, London and the UK. Through Arts Council England, the Government provide it in the region of £500,000 grant-in-aid support. I am pleased to report that Wandsworth Borough Council has agreed to extend its lease and grant to the centre, and I understand that the board of Battersea Arts Centre intends to take the building into a trust.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Does he agree that the enormous amount of public support and enthusiasm for the Battersea Arts Centre, not only in Battersea but throughout London, has helped to persuade Wandsworth council to change its mind? However, the future of the arts centre is not yet totally secure. Will my noble friend further comment on the fact that, possibly as a result, the Wandsworth Museum is to be closed, which would be very detrimental to the cultural and historic sense of local community? What is the future of Wandsworth Museum?

My Lords, my noble friend is right. It was the outcry from all parts of the political spectrum that seems to have saved Battersea Arts Centre, which is obviously a good thing. I can confirm that Wandsworth council has decided to close its museum. The decision was made by democratically elected members and, however wrong we think the decision, we have to accept it. Mr Mark Taylor, chief executive of the Museum Association, said yesterday:

“The whole process of closure of the museum is financially driven and it shows that local councillors clearly accept no responsibility for helping local people to understand their own culture and sense of place”.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a Battersea resident. I was delighted to hear what the Minister said about the museum. He did not mention any time limit, or how long it would definitely remain open. Does he realise what an asset that museum is to the children of that neighbourhood, who learn their local history and a great many other things through visiting it? Equally, if by some very unfortunate chance the museum were to close, where would the exhibits go?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. First, on the arts centre, the council has agreed to grant £85,000 next year and to extend the lease until March 2008. However, a group of trustees is now working with the council so that it can pass into community hands. My view, knowing the centre well, is that it will survive because it is such an extraordinarily important arts centre—something that cannot be said about all arts centres.

As for the museum, the decision has been made by the executive and is to be ratified by the full council on 17 March. If it is closed, 15 people will be made redundant and 10,000 objects dispersed. For those reasons, when a museum closes it can never be re-opened. The sadness is that about 30,000 people a year are visiting it, and 20 per cent of those are people of ethnic origin who want to look at exhibits telling them about their pasts. So, it is a great pity.

My Lords, in supporting the strong case that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made and in welcoming what the Government have said, I declare an interest as a patron of the JMK Trust. This unique charity annually awards prizes to the best young theatre director of the year, providing them with golden opportunities to mount performances at the BAC under the guidance of established colleagues. Surely, the Minister is aware that substantial parts of the audience who not only enjoy these performances but who support and learn from that quite remarkable charity are Battersea residents. Will Her Majesty’s Government do what they can to persuade and reinforce the changed position of Wandsworth, urging it to recognise the unique value that BAC has to its own community as well as to the wider community of arts?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that question. One characteristic of the campaign has been national figures pointing out that this is an absolute centre of excellence, and that it must continue. My feeling, which others share, is that the council has realised this and will make sure that the museum’s future is secure. If there is any hint that that will not happen, then the outcry will continue.

I should point out that the outcry is not just local. I have an article here from the Daily Telegraph about the possible closure, arguing that it shows how the Conservative Party really needs to develop a new arts policy, and that if it does not, it will run into such problems with boroughs like Wandsworth. That comes not from the New Statesman, but from the cultural correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

My Lords, as the Minister has praised the Battersea Arts Centre, would he be able to prepare a document that would tell other groups outside the country how they would be able to match its performance? Surely that would be one thing that could be taken out of this—a positive example to others, to ensure that they have a thriving arts centre and somewhere delivering the performing arts.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that suggestion. I shall pass it back to the DCMS and report back to him on the department’s reaction.