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7.40 pm

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn): I welcome the opportunity to raise the important issue of Theatr Clwyd. This debate relates to the closure of an important social and cultural asset of north Wales and north-west England. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales will respond positively to my points, as the Welsh Office has a central and crucial role to play in the future of the theatre--just as it has had a central part to play in the problems associated with the possible closure of the theatre.

In 1994, the Welsh Office was instrumental in passing the Local Government (Wales) Bill, which has had a bearing on the possible closure of the theatre because of the abolition of Clwyd county council. I hope that this debate will present the Welsh Office with a good opportunity to respond positively to the points that I have been putting to Ministers.

I should like to record my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones),for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) and for Clwyd, South-West(Mr. Jones) for their staunch support for Theatr Clwyd over the past few months. I am also pleased to see the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) in his place; he too has taken an interest in the theatre's future.

Theatr Clwyd is based in Mold in my constituency. It is owned by Clwyd county council and operated as a directly provided service through a board of governors comprising 16 elected councillors and 11 co-operative non-voting members. Its staff are all local government employees. Theatr Clwyd comprises two excellent theatres: a main theatre, seating between 530 and 590, and a large flexible studio, seating between 180 and 300. It also contains a cinema with 129 seats, a television facility including a dual-use television and drama studio, many galleries, a multi-function performance and function room with up to 250 seats, and facilities to support a producing theatre company and educational services for the community.

The theatre also houses the leading drama company in Wales, which currently presents a minimum of six and a maximum of 12 productions a year at home, giving about 200 to 320 performances a year. The company spends up to 15 weeks a year on tour throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, and often gives performances in London's west end.

The theatre plays host to a range of quality visiting drama, dance and music, and presents a large programme of film and exhibitions. All this is available to the people in Flintshire, the rest of Clwyd and north-west England. The wide-ranging educational provision includes a professional theatre-in-education company, a youth theatre, courses, classes, a professional dance service, and training and work experience opportunities for young people.

There are currently about 1,300 performances a year in the theatre and more than 150 performances on tour in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. Nearly200 performances are sponsored by the theatre in schools in the county of Clwyd, and there are nearly 1,000 workshops and courses a year throughout the county. The facilities, the staff, the location and the financial resources have attracted artists of the finest calibre from all over the United

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Kingdom to Mold, sure in the knowledge that standards achievable at the theatre are among the highest in the UK. I could name many actors and actresses who have performed there: Vanessa Redgrave, Joan Plowright, Philip Madoc, Timothy West, Julie Christie and Sir Anthony Hopkins have all performed there recently--a formidable list.

This theatre in my constituency is unique. There is no other arts complex of its kind in Wales or north-west England; there is no other theatre company in Wales that can produce work of such quality and with such a high profile.

About 400,000 people a year see the work of the theatre or visit its facilities. There are well over 160,000 paid attendances at the theatre, and well over 120,000 other users come to it. Well over 60,000 people take part in workshops, courses and classes in Clwyd, and well over 10,000 people participate in the theatre-in-education in Clwyd's schools. Well over 20,000 people, excluding London west end audiences, see the theatre on tour each year.

These figures are much higher than those of other theatres in major conurbations, such as the West Yorkshire playhouse, the Nottingham playhouse, or even the Birmingham repertory theatre and the Leicester Haymarket theatre. Theatr Clwyd has consistently attracted large audiences and now has a well-established profile, offering a dependable base from which to attract further audiences and bring the community in to see the work of the theatre. It is a thriving business, with an annual turnover of more than £4 million.

Until the advent of local government reorganisation--my reason for calling this debate--Clwyd county has provided the theatre with financial support for its core operation amounting to about £1.5 million a year. The Arts Council of Wales has given about £500,000 towards the production costs of the theatre company. Income earned from people who come to the theatre currently totals more than £1.5 million a year. The theatre has developed tight financial controls to ensure that there is no budget deficit. A considerable amount of money is spent by local people at the theatre, and a considerable amount of local ratepayers' money contributes to the running costs, besides the grant that the Arts Council of Wales pays.

In my constituency, the theatre employs 65 permanent staff and more than 600 other people on a temporary basis, many of them from north-west England and north-east Wales. Contracts from the theatre for catering and cleaning services create at least another 39 jobs locally, and the theatre draws significantly on supplies of many local products from north Wales and north-west England. Payments to businesses in north Wales alone amounted to almost £500,000 in 1994-95, and payments to businesses in England were well over £1.3 million.

As is recognised in many of the letters that I have received from constituents, Theatr Clwyd helps to draw in people to north-east Wales. They then spend their money at local restaurants and in hotels and other holiday accommodation. They also support coach operators throughout the north-west and north Wales, and they spend their money in Mold. I am sure that the hon. Member for City of Chester finds that the Gateway theatre in Chester has the same beneficial effect. Certainly, Theatr Clwyd is a major attraction to inward investment and tourism.

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The theatre is also recognised by many businesses in north Wales as one of the reasons why they established themselves there in the first place. It constitutes an added attraction to the area, along with many other of our facilities in north Wales.

All that has been achieved by the local authority over the 20 years of the theatre's existence. I pay tribute to the people who founded the theatre, to Clwyd county council and to the board of governors who have sustained the theatre for all these years. I also pay tribute to Patrick Gilcrest and his staff, who have worked hard to develop the theatre and to ensure that it attracts audiences.

We are left with a problem which I hope this evening we can, by agreement, resolve. The problem relates to the abolition, under local government reorganisation, of Clwyd county council, which has sustained the theatre to the tune of £1.5 million over these years. With effect from 1 April this year, Clwyd county council will no longer exist. Over the past few months, that fact has cast grave doubts on the future viability of the theatre. The money that the council has been paying will have to be found from elsewhere. I hope that that problem can finally be resolved by means of this debate and by discussion with local authorities over the next few weeks.

Local government reorganisation was the creation of the Welsh Office. That, in part, is why I asked for an Adjournment debate. I voted against Second Reading of the Bill that introduced reorganisation, but that is by the bye. Reorganisation has taken place. The Welsh Office has created unitary authorities, and I wish those authorities well. Elections took place last year and the electors in the authority that covers my constituency elected a Labour council. I wish that council well for the future.

The Welsh Office, because of the focus of local government reorganisation, has moral and political responsibilities to help the new authorities through the difficult times that face Theatr Clwyd. Clwyd county council has split into the four new authorities of Flintshire, Denbighshire, Wrexham, and Aberconwy and Colwyn. The theatre is in Mold, in Flintshire, in my constituency.

The Minister is aware of the background to these matters but it is important to place it on record. The fact that Theatr Clwyd was in some difficulty was raised during consideration of the reorganisation Bill about two years ago. At that time, the previous Secretaries of State for Wales, the right hon. Members for Wirral, West(Mr. Hunt) and for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), gave assurances that local government reorganisation would not damage the theatre's prospects and that the theatre would not be adversely affected. Commitments were given to ensure the continuation of the theatre. They were given verbally to the leader of the council. Commitments were also given in Committee to the effect that the issue would be considered.

It became clear late last year that it was necessary to clarify matters. It had always seemed that 1 April 1996 was a long way off, but at the end of 1995 it became apparent that that date was not so far away and that matters should be resolved. In October 1995, the Arts Council of Wales recommitted its £500,000, as it had done for several years. In January, the new Flintshire authority committed £600,000 of ratepayers' money to establish dialogue to try to secure the £1.5 million deficit that Clwyd county council had previously undertaken.

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I am grateful to the Minister with responsibilities for local government in Wales for meeting a delegation of Flintshire councillors and my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside and me late last year. During the meeting, we raised the issue of Theatr Clwyd and put on record the need for the Welsh Office to come forward with some proposals to secure future viability and to support the local authority.

I must praise Flintshire for taking the initiative. The authority requested the meeting and took responsibility for trying to find a funding solution. It has committed £600,000 of ratepayers' money, which is 40 per cent. of Clwyd county council's former grant. Flintshire has only 35 per cent. of the former Clwyd county council's population. The Labour leader, Councillor Tom Middlehurst, has shown commitment, with the chief executive, Philip McCreavy, but has needed the support of the Welsh Office and other authorities to help keep the theatre viable.

On the announcements of £600,000 from Flintshire and £500,000 from the Arts Council of Wales being made available, considerable community interest was shown. The local communities rallied around, and they have shown their support for the theatre. I have had numerous letters from constituents who have requested support to maintain it. Many people from England, as well as from my constituency and throughout Wales, have written to me. An early-day motion was tabled and signed by many hon. Members from England and Wales.

Local newspapers--the Chester Chronicle and the Daily Post--ran strong campaigns to save the theatre and to put pressure on those who had influence. Many engaged in the theatre and in the theatrical profession generally have professed their support. I understand that the Welsh Office has received more than 1,000 letters from individuals expressing support for the retention of the theatre and for the Welsh Office to take positive action.

On 8 February, during the debate on local government finance, the Secretary of State responded to the meetings that have taken place and to the pressure that has been exerted by many people by announcing a £1.3 million one-off grant, subject to a long-term future for the theatre, to write off outstanding capital debts. He said:

the Flintshire authority's--

The one-off grant is welcome. It will pay for the capital cost of the project.

Shortly after that, the Arts Council of Wales announced a further £200,000 direct funding grant to support the £500,000 that it had given already. It became clear, however, that there was still a significant financial shortfall, taking into account what the theatre had enjoyed previously while under the ownership and control of Clwyd county council. The £1.3 million grant from the Welsh Office and the £200,000 additional funding from the Arts Council of Wales were consistent with and subject to local authorities in former Clwyd contributing significant sources of resource.

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There were expectations of Denbighshire, Wrexham, and Aberconwy and Colwyn councils to provide significant sources of funding to help the theatre to continue at the current level of funding. The Minister will be aware that £50,000 has been promised by Denbighshire, £56,000 by Wrexham and £23,000 by Aberconwy and Colwyn. These moneys, while genuinely welcome, were not necessarily what was expected, and not what was formerly paid by the ratepayers of former Clwyd. The reasons that lie behind that are varied and complicated and I do not wish to rehearse them tonight. Until this week, however, there was a projected deficit of about £319,000, when set against the undertaking of former Clwyd, in maintaining the theatre for the forthcoming financial year.

The Minister will be aware that the theatre had projected savings of about £100,000 and increases in income. I am sure that those savings and increases in income would have been helpful. When I requested this debate this week, there was still a shortfall of £319,000 and grave concern that the theatre would close from30 June unless funding was made available from another source. The funding package that the Secretary of State brought forward had an initial deadline of 8 March for acceptance. I welcome the extension of that deadline to enable further consideration to be given by local authorities to tackling a major deficit.

Events move with speed, however, and only yesterday a meeting was convened by Clwyd county council of the four unitary authorities, at which representatives of the Arts Council of Wales were present. It was decided at that meeting to produce a package for the theatre, which I hope will get it through the next financial year.

The funding package may still mean job losses, significant cuts and grave difficulties. I hope that the Minister will take up those issues when he replies. The county council had drawn on resources from its dying days. In effect, a deathbed grant has been made to the new authorities to try to get the theatre through the next financial year, with a substantial package of cuts. There is still no long-term future, however, for the theatre complex and for the good services that the theatre provides.

I am pleased that the county council has been able to assist. I am pleased also, of course, that it has been able to carry some finance through to next year. However, the package is still subject to the agreement of the Secretary of State's office. I look for some positive news on that front from the Minister.

As I have said, events have moved on since I applied for this debate, but there are still matters that need to be tackled. There are a number of key points with which I hope the Minister will deal positively this evening. There is still the need to take matters forward for the future. We have an excellent theatre that provides extremely good services to 400,000 people. It is popular and well known, and has a value in the community. I believe that the Welsh Office has certain moral and political responsibilities and that there are things that only the Welsh Office can do to help secure the long-term funding of the theatre.

First, I ask the Minister to ensure that the £1.3 million grant that was placed on record by the Secretary of State on 8 February will remain on the table during current discussions, subject to the package that local authorities are trying to agree for the next financial year. That

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package should be available for the short-term future of the theatre as well as for the long term. I hope that the Minister will be able to ensure that the arts council's additional £200,000 is available for use next year to see the theatre through the next 12 months. That would be a key statement this evening that would give the local authorities confidence to commit the package and so to get the theatre through the next 12 months.

Secondly, I hope that the Welsh Office will adopt a positive role during the next 12 months to try to secure the theatre's long-term future. I hope also that the Minister, through his officials, will be able to convene a meeting in the next few months with all interested parties who have a stake in the theatre to discuss its future and that of the complex after 31 March 1997. The situation should be all right next year, but we need to discuss and consult on what will happen in future years. I hope that the Minister will use his good offices to facilitate that meeting, because the Welsh Office has a responsibility and a key role in the matter which it should take on.

Thirdly, I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister will generally examine the issue of local government funding of the theatre. I have certainly had representations from Flintshire--I am sure that Wrexham, Denbighshire, and Aberconwy and Colwyn councils would support those representations--to examine the capping levels for local authorities this year and in the future so that the facility's regional potential can be taken into account. In the review of the standard spending assessment and the formulae, I hope that the Minister will take the regional nature of Theatr Clwyd into account.I do not expect an answer from him this evening, but I hope that he will consider the matter so that future SSAs and capping levels reflect local authorities' responsibilities in committing themselves to the theatre.

Fourthly, I should like to impress on the Minister the strong feeling in my community and in the local authorities that, although Theatr Clwyd is in Wales and receives substantial support from Welsh ratepayers, the Welsh Office and the Arts Council of Wales, some 50 per cent. of its audience comes from England. My constituency is not 20 minutes from that of the hon. Member for City of Chester. Many people travel; I have had letters from constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and from Bolton, Liverpool, Shropshire and Cheshire about individuals who go to Theatr Clwyd to see a performance. It is a regional theatre in Wales provided by local ratepayers, but I hope that it will receive support from the Welsh Office in the future and continue to receive support from the Arts Council of Wales.

Flintshire has asked--I ask the Minister to consider this request--whether there is scope for the Welsh Office and for Flintshire to support contact and discussion with the Department of National Heritage and the Arts Council of England to secure at least discussion on the possibility of some funding from England, which would follow individuals from England who attend the theatre.

Flintshire has written to the chief executives of Cheshire county council, Chester city council, Shropshire county council, Wirral metropolitan borough council, and Ellesmere Port and Neston borough council, among others, seeking financial contributions from the rates of those authorities to help Theatr Clwyd's revenue support. To date, all replies have been negative. Flintshire simply

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feels, as I am sure the other authorities do, that the facility is welcome in Wales and is a boon to Wales, but that it also has an impact on England.

I should welcome the Minister's comments on whether he feels able to support Flintshire making representations to English authorities, to the Department of National Heritage and to the Arts Council of England to facilitate discussion on whether there is scope to maintain the theatre. I do not know whether that support is possible, but my local authorities certainly desire it, and I am sure that people in my area would welcome it.

This has been an important opportunity to debate the future of Theatr Clwyd. It has local support and it is valued, and I hope that the Minister can offer some positive news on the points that I have made. If he provides such news, the theatre will go from strength to strength. The theatre is used by 400,000 people a year and is a valuable source of support; the Minister should support it in his reply.

I pay tribute to all those who have pressed for the retention of Theatr Clwyd. There are some solutions for the £1.5 million deficit from Clwyd county council. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response because he and the Welsh Office have a responsibility for the theatre. Without local government reorganisation, the theatre would not be experiencing this crisis. I know that the Minister has been helpful to date; I look forward to his help today.

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