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Accessibility of Cultural Attractions

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 26 January 2023

My Department is committed to broadening the accessibility of our cultural heritage sites across the country. Arts Council England recently announced the 2023-26 national portfolio, which will significantly improve access to arts and culture. DCMS also works closely with David Stanley, the disability and access ambassador for arts and culture, to improve accessibility to the sector for those with disabilities.

In recent months, projects in Blyth Valley have received upwards of £700,000 of funding from my right hon. Friend’s Department, including the refurbishment of the grade I listed Seaton Delaval Hall, Headway Arts in Blyth, and the replica of the Williams II sailing ship that discovered Antarctica in 1820—there is so much to see. On that point, I offer my right hon. Friend the opportunity to experience those projects at first hand, meet the people involved, and sample the excellent fish and chips on the north-east coastline.

Heritage and culture play a vital role in many of our communities, including in the Blyth valley, showing that they are great places to live, work and visit. I am delighted that the Department and our outside bodies are funding projects there, including the £96,000 for Headway Arts. That is just what we want to see. Of course, I would be more than happy to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. As I represent the home of the original Harry Ramsden’s, I would be interested to compare them with good old Yorkshire fish and chips.

I am incredibly proud of the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford and the outreach work that it does in the wards of Stoke and Westborough, which have some of the highest rates of deprivation and the lowest health outcomes in Surrey. It does all that work outside the national portfolio organisation framework, with little support from the local authority. To truly level up accessibility to the arts for my constituents, what can the Department do to encourage local authorities to recognise and support arts organisations that sit outside the NPO framework?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to be proud of her theatre and all the work that it does despite being outside the portfolio. Our Department is absolutely committed to ensuring that all people have access to arts and culture regardless of where they live. Many local authorities invest in those sectors and respond in innovative ways, and have created many new models. I hope that her local authority will look at the huge benefits that others have enjoyed by accessing many of the partnerships that have brought about best practice in our country.

Unboxed was a £120 million investment to celebrate the best of Britain. The Department reported in November that the figure for audience engagement was just over 18 million. That sounds a reasonable reach, but it turns out that a one- hour “Countryfile” TV special was doing the heavy lifting with 5 million viewers—nearly a third of the total. I understand that a wider evaluation is in hand, but does the Minister think that the festival made the impact that his Department intended it to, and can he ensure that this point is considered in the wider evaluation?

The hon. Gentleman is right to question in the way that he has. Unboxed has had many successes, and it has brought about cultural and art experiences to places that would perhaps never usually enjoy them—I am thinking about the work that went on in Caernarfon in north Wales, for example. He is right that we are evaluating it, and this will be a part of the assessment that we make.

What steps will Ministers take to ensure that cultural attractions in tourist spots offer full disability awareness training for staff, covering not just physical disabilities but hidden disabilities, so that they can better accommodate their visitors?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: when we talk about access for all, we absolutely mean it. The disability unit in the Government has launched an enhanced and expanded programme of disability and access ambassadors to help us drive progress in increasing access. I am pleased that many of our establishments are working on that at speed.

The accessibility of cultural organisations will be affected greatly by the Government’s tapering of orchestra tax relief and theatre tax relief from April. The Association of British Orchestras tells me that the 50% rate has enabled orchestras to survive at a time when box office and other earned income is falling. It has enabled concerts in non- traditional venues, reaching new audiences in underserved communities. However, the tapered rate will cost some national organisations as much as £3 million. Jobs will be lost, there will be cuts to productions, and outreach work, such as that we have heard about, will not be possible. Some orchestras and theatres will just not survive. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor to review urgently the reduction in orchestra and theatre tax reliefs?

The hon. Lady is right to raise those important points. I assure her that both I and my ministerial colleagues in the Department have regular discussions with colleagues in the Treasury. We will continue to do so and raise the points she has highlighted.