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Swan Theatre (Worcester)

12.30 pm

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): Let me say at the outset that I am disappointed at having to draw the plight of the Swan theatre in Worcester to the attention of the House. Earlier this month, news broke that Worcester district council, through its leader, Councillor Steven Inman, intends to cut the annual grant that it gives to the theatre from £137,000 a year to £54,000. That, combined with its impact on match funding from West Midlands Arts, means that the theatre will be forced to close early in the new year, and I want to draw attention to that act of cultural vandalism today.

Worcester Swan theatre is a 350-seat theatre. It attracts visitors from the city, across the county and further afield. It is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee. It is governed by a voluntary board of governors and run by a small group of staff aided by volunteers. Of its income in 2001–02, 55 per cent. was earned, 21 per cent. was grant aid from West Midlands Arts, 17 per cent. was from the city council, 3 per cent. was from the county council and fundraising revenue made up the remainder.

The theatre has three strands of work. The first is production, with home-produced plays made in Worcester, with the creative process led by the in-house artistic team.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): It is right that the hon. Gentleman should draw attention to the productions of the Swan theatre, of which my wife is a director. It is particularly tragic that the theatre faces closure now, when, artistically speaking, its productions are some of the finest that it has ever produced.

Mr. Foster : From time to time the hon. Gentleman and I disagree, but, on the issue in question, the city council has done us a great service in that we are united in our support for the Swan theatre, and I put on record my testimony to the hard work and dedication that the hon. Gentleman puts into theatre work in Worcester and in the all-party group on theatre.

Last year, Lance Woodman's "Red Skies Over the Severn" was critically acclaimed, and, as a result, Mr. Woodman was awarded a prestigious Pearson play-writing bursary. The Guardian gave the play glowing praise, describing it as

The second strand of work is presenting, with increasing quantities of national touring work going to the Swan. In 1998–99, there were 19 performances of six different productions. In 2001–02, there were 75 performances of 17 different productions. An example of that was "Victorian Values", which was watched last year by nearly 1,800 local children aged seven to 11.

The third strand is participation, which is made up of education and community work, as well as amateur theatre. Last Christmas, the theatre produced a musical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol", which linked the core professional actors and musicians with a community company of local, non-professional actors and children from across the city. There is a picture of

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the performance in the annual report. I cannot see any physical resemblance between Councillor Inman and Scrooge, but I know that many friends and allies of the Swan may disagree with that view.

In 1998, West Midlands Arts announced its intention to remove completely its funding as of April 1999 because it was underfunded and needed to make savings. The Swan was chosen as the sacrificial lamb because historically the local authority had funded the theatre poorly. West Midlands Arts took the view that if a local council did not value a theatre there was no reason to put money into it. The city council responded by agreeing an extra £83,000 a year on top of the existing £54,000 grant. The theatre produced a three-year plan for 1999 to 2001 called "Creative Connections" and West Midlands Arts agreed three years' worth of funding.

Recently, the city council set up a working party to examine arts provision in the city. It comprised three city councillors, representing the three main political parties, who produced a unanimous report that was presented to the executive board of the city council in December 2001. The working party recommended that the grant continue to be paid at the full level in return for monitoring certain performance indicators at the Swan. Earlier this year, the budget was set and continued the grant funding level on that recommendation.

In 2001, Worcester Swan theatre was shocked to discover that it was not included in the distribution of additional funding resulting from the national review of English regional producing theatres. It was one of only four in the country not to be recommended for additional funding, and that was a major blow to the Swan. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on the reason behind that decision, and to confirm whether it is true that, as Worcester Swan theatre was told, the primary reason for its exclusion was a lack of drive from local authorities.

Shortly after the Swan published its 2002–03 business plan, it was evident that financial viability was threatened. West Midlands Arts, through the lottery programme, funded a report by Andrew McKinnon on the theatre, its operation and finances. Broadly speaking, the report says that the theatre manages its resources well, that it is vibrant and that the chief problem is underfunding.

To continue its present policy and programmes, Worcester Swan theatre would need another £77,000 a year. West Midlands Arts and the Arts Council responded positively, suggesting that they could make an extra £50,000 a year available. Last night, I received a phone call from County Councillor Adrian Hardman, the portfolio holder for resources, who informed me of the council's intention to increase the grant by the extra £27,000 needed to match fund the West Midlands Arts' grant.

Worcester Swan, recognising that in the long term the theatre needs other resources as it is beginning to show its age and its location is not ideal, started discussions with the city council about shaping the theatre's future and what contribution could be made. In the light of those discussions the city council announced its intentions to withdraw the £83,000 of funding. It appears that Worcester city council has financial

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problems. Naturally enough, it blames them on the Government, but in reality I suspect it made the classic mistake of anticipating savings and spending them before they were realised. Only on finding that those savings had not materialised did it realise that a problem existed.

Newspaper reports state that the feared deficit for this year is close to £400,000, and the projected deficit for next year is £1.1 million. It is in an attempt to resolve next year's financial problem that the city council has threatened the funding of Worcester Swan theatre. Since that news broke, the public outcry has been enormous. I attended a meeting of more than 300 friends and allies of the Swan on 14 October. The meeting heard from the chairman, Gerald Harris, that due to the actions of Worcester city council, the theatre would close in the new year. It will close unless the city council have a change of heart.

I want local councillors to view spending on the arts not as bailing out the Swan theatre, but as helping to serve the cultural needs of the local community.

Mr. Luff : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. Does he understand that the wider community is not just Worcester city, but the county of Worcestershire? I am getting a great deal of pressure from my constituents, who are urging me to do all that I can to reverse the closure. The play of which he spoke, "Red Skies Over the Severn", was a powerful work about the impact of foot and mouth disease on Worcestershire, which made a powerful appeal to the farming community in my constituency. We are talking not just about Worcester city, but about the county.

Mr. Foster : I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I have a letter from the Bishop of Worcester, the Right Reverend Dr. Peter Selby, who makes exactly the same point as the hon. Gentleman. Dr. Selby writes that the theatre

He then makes a telling point:

The theatre provides entertainment and culture for the city. Worcester is a vibrant city with an increasingly flourishing nightlife. Indeed, the city council has paid for a tourist website to show exactly what Worcester has to offer. The council includes the Swan theatre as a major attraction, yet its actions threaten the Swan's very existence.

I also call into question the secrecy surrounding the decision to cut funding to Worcester Swan theatre. The city council has an appointed representative who sits as an observer on the board of Worcester Swan, but he was not informed of the discussions on future funding and he found out about the decision by reading about it in the local newspaper.

The leader of the city council has responded to criticism from local people by attacking Worcester Swan theatre and how it is organised. Councillor Inman was quoted as saying that the Swan could survive if it lost

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He said that he wants the theatre to be run by volunteers, amateur groups and friends, but I am afraid that that ignores the theatre's important community and educational role. That point was made strongly by Ben Humphrey of the Next Generation youth theatre at the meeting on 14 October. He asked what the 75 young people involved were meant to do in the evenings once their youth theatre group had closed down.

Worcester Swan cannot rely solely on being a receiving theatre. It would be in direct competition with the newly-refurbished Malvern theatre and the loss of in-house production and community work would set back the development of the Swan by 30 years. I accept that there is some confusion among those who provide grant aid as to what Worcester Swan theatre should do. The McKinnon report recognises that and calls for

for Worcester Swan theatre.

I am pleased to note that the city council has called a special sitting of the community services committee, which will include representatives from the theatre board and the Arts Council, for 4 November. I hope that by then the city council will have realised the enormity of its mistake and changed its policy towards a grant for the Swan.

Perhaps the Minister can help Worcester. Can he give examples of other parts of the country in which there is a genuine partnership with those who provide grant aid for theatres? If so, can he point me in their direction so that all the local players in this game can get together soon to secure the future of Worcester Swan theatre?

Will the Minister consider the funding for the Swan from West Midlands Arts? It pledged an extra £50,000 to meet the findings and new direction arising from the McKinnon report, but that was on the basis of matched funding from local authorities. As of last night, that matched funding was made available. However, I understand that other theatres have had more generous grants of up to £250,000 a year, without the string attached of matched local authority funding.

The very existence of the Swan is being questioned at a time when there is huge potential for it to succeed in a new setting. The McKinnon report concludes that

There are some exciting developments planned in the city centre, particularly the regeneration of the old Castle street hospital, where such a base could find a new and permanent home. But the Swan needs to survive through next year if that is to become a reality and I should welcome advice from the Minister on how to secure the short-term future of the Swan and its long-term existence.

The conclusion of the McKinnon report was written before the city council broke the news of its plan to cut funding to the Swan. The final paragraph states:

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I doubt whether, when that was written, Andrew McKinnon had cuts in funding in mind, but those cuts are decisive and unequivocal and Worcester Swan theatre will have no future if they go ahead. I appeal to the city council to think again.

I am not a city or county councillor; I have no say in the spending decisions of local councils. My role is merely to draw the attention of those with that power to my fear that Worcester will become a cultural desert. In doing so I have been accused of causing mischief, but if, in being mischievous, I cause people in power to think again, I will have done my job. It is in Worcester's interest to have a successful theatre and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how he can help to make that happen.

12.45 pm

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) for securing the debate, which has given us the opportunity to discuss an issue that is clearly important to Worcester, and about which the Minister for the Arts also feels strongly. As my hon. Friend rightly said, it is important that Worcester has a thriving theatre at its heart and I regret the funding decision that the city council has made.

However, I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that Ministers have no direct influence on the funding of individual art forms or organisations, since funding for the arts is carried out at arm's length from the Government through the Arts Council of England. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) will agree that the worst possible thing would be for politicians to start arbitrating on who gets money and who does not with regard to the production of anything creative.

Mr. Luff : Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Howells : No, I should like to make progress.

I make it clear at the outset that the difficulties faced by the Swan theatre in Worcester are not due to a lack of commitment on the part of the Arts Council, but are the result of decisions taken by Worcester city council. Those decisions are a matter of great regret to my Department, but ultimately they are local decisions.

That said, I am aware that the Arts Council and West Midlands Arts have a recent history of close and extensive work with the Swan theatre and its other funders, Worcester city and Worcester county councils, to enable financial and artistic development at the Swan and to ensure an exit strategy from its current building.

The need for a new building was first identified in 1998 following a lottery capital fund feasibility study for capital refurbishment or rebuild of the Swan theatre. That independent study concluded that the cost of refurbishment would not represent good value for money and that rebuilds on the theatre's current site would not be prudent as it lies within the flood plain of the River Severn.

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The study also found, through extensive research of audiences, schools, non-attenders and strategic agencies, a

That sounds odd, but I recognise such feelings in my own constituency. People think that it is important for towns and cities to have such theatres but, for whatever reason—perhaps we can discuss those reasons—they do not feel that it is one of the most urgent of considerations.

Having considered the independent report, the board of West Midlands Arts intimated that it could no longer justify investment in the theatre unless further revenue funding could be raised locally and a plan developed to address the medium-term capital needs.

Mr. Luff : The Minister says that he has no response on the funding, but it is quite clear that he has taken his brief directly from West Midlands Arts. I agree with almost every word of the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), but the Minister must understand that although the golden bullet was fired by the city council, which I regret bitterly, the gun was formed by West Midlands Arts' history of non-co-operation with the Swan theatre, Worcester city council and Worcestershire county council. The rot set in with West Midlands Arts' unconstructive approach to the Swan theatre, which was the beginning of the crisis.

Dr. Howells : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I shall seek to prove that that is not the case and that there are serious reasons why the theatre is in its current position. I would not include in those reasons any criticism of the level of production in the theatre, because, independently of the brief, I have heard that the theatre is excellent.

In April 1999, extensive discussions took place with Worcester city council and Worcestershire county council. Worcester city council increased its subsidy to the theatre from £54,000 per annum to £137,000, and West Midlands Arts agreed to fund the theatre for a three-year period between 1999 and 2002, and negotiated a funding agreement for that period in consultation with the city and the county. Worcester city council put forward an application to the Arts Council's capital programme when that was relaunched as capital 2 in 2001. The competition for capital funding at that time was intense, and the application was not shortlisted against other priorities since no research or preliminary feasibility work had been carried out by the local authority in support of the idea. That is an important consideration.

West Midlands Arts could not give priority to the Swan theatre's case for new resources to implement the national theatre strategy in 2001 as there had been no resolution of the theatre's capital difficulties. In November 2001, the Swan theatre approached West Midlands Arts to discuss the new financial problems that it faced and its urgent need for assistance in managing its cash flow.

The regional and national offices of the Arts Council worked together to find an additional sum of £50,000 to supplement the theatre's core funding of £179,000 to enable it to continue to operate during the subsequent

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two years. Funds were also offered to help with small-scale capital work to keep the theatre open. Those additional sums were conditional on a realistic plan being developed by the city council for the construction of a new arts centre in Worcester.

The city council has decided, in the light of its overall prioritisation of funding, to reduce funding to the Swan theatre. Funding of the arts is a mixed economy, involving the Arts Council, earned income, local authorities and private subsidy. The Arts Council does not seek to be, nor should it be, a majority funder. Money needs to be put into local arts resources by locally based bodies.

There is no statutory responsibility on Worcester city council to provide or deliver a theatre service, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport cannot dictate how local authorities allocate their funds. The grants offered by the city council to cultural facilities in the area, while welcomed by the Department, are at its own discretion. The modernisation ethos for local government outlined in the local government White Paper seeks to reduce and minimise ring-fenced grants in order to give local authorities more discretion over expenditure.

There have been some reports that local government funding for the arts is under threat. I assure my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire that my Department monitors the situation vigilantly, and will want to be informed of any instances in which that is the case.

West Midlands Arts is working with Worcestershire county council to develop a touring circuit in Worcestershire that will bring professional theatre to community venues in the county, including Worcester city if the council agrees to participate in the initiative. West Midlands Arts is also aware of a new performing arts facility being developed at University College. Although these cannot replace the professional producing theatre, they will ensure access to participatory and community-based activity. West Midlands Arts will also talk to the county council about other theatre developments, particularly the recently refurbished Malvern theatre, which is just 10 miles away from Worcester city.

Government funding for the arts in general has reached record levels. That will address some of the issues that have been raised, although not the specific one raised by my hon. Friend. In March 2001, the Arts Council announced its theatre review, which discussed how the additional £25 million a year allocated to the theatre from 2003-04 would be spent. West Midlands Arts will benefit to the tune of £1.85 million, bringing the total spend on theatre in the region to £5.5 million, which by any standards is a considerable sum.

This year, the Arts Council joined together with the 10 regional arts boards to create a single arts funding organisation. We are monitoring its progress to ensure that it delivers improved value for the arts and the public. We will also be kept informed of the Arts

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Council's progress on developing a strategy to address the £8 million to £10 million savings on administration. We want administrative savings to be ploughed back into the arts, especially at regional level, such as in the west midlands.

The Arts Council recognises the tremendous efforts and considerable achievements of all those involved in trying to help the Swan to make a critical transition. Regrettably, however, and after careful consideration, it seems that it is not possible for the funding partners to find between them the investment that the theatre requires in the short term, or for there to be sufficient movement towards a new arts facility that would provide a viable and sustainable future for theatre in Worcester.

The challenge for us all is to develop an understanding and appreciation of what the arts can do that cannot be done in any other way. Their contribution to broader social and economic objectives has been demonstrated time and again. I hoped that Worcester city council would see that as an extremely important vehicle in the equation, but it must be seen as additional to the arts' unique value to us as a people.

I urge all parties to see this as an opportunity to seek enhanced partnership funding within the local community. The thrust of the national policy for theatre in England has been to enable theatre to respond to, and reflect in its organisations, the inevitably changing role of theatre in contemporary society, and to reward those that have that immediate capacity. I understand that, among other things, the building in Worcester continues to be an enormous constraint on that possibility for the Swan.

The McKinnon report recommended a short-term increase in funding and urgent work to establish the route towards a new arts centre for Worcester. As I pointed out, West Midlands Arts was able to find an additional £50,000 to supplement the theatre's core funding towards re-establishing a financially viable base level of support for the Swan. Funds were also offered to help with small-scale capital work necessary to keep the theatre open. I stress that those additional sums were conditional on the city council developing a realistic plan towards the construction of a new centre in Worcester. It is important to remember that match funding was not a condition of the additional funds.

The assertion of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire that somehow West Midlands Arts has conspired against the theatre is wrong. West Midlands Arts very much wanted this to be a success and put money towards it. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there is a great deal of competition for that funding, which will, of course, be directed to local authorities and other funding parties for theatres that have made a better fist of it. We have made it clear that we believe that regional and city theatres throughout the country fulfil roles well beyond simply putting on excellent performances, vital though those performances are. Those are the theatres that will receive most of the support.

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