Theatre in Wales

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Statement on the Arts Outside Cardiff (Transcript of the Assembly discussion session)     

The Minister for Culture, Welsh Language and Sport (Alun Pugh): On the day after my appointment, I held my first meeting with culture officials, and told them that there were two key pieces of information that they needed to know. First, I have a huge interest in the culture brief. Secondly, Labour values will prevail in this ministry. I hope that Members will see practical evidence of both these passions in this afternoon’s statement.

The theatre can entertain and can lift our spirits. At its best, it can even challenge the way we think about and see the world. However, too few people have the opportunity to engage with this art form. Sometimes, exclusion is related to geography, sometimes it comes from a misplaced feeling that the arts are ‘not for me’, and sometimes, of course, the product is simply not available. I recognise that an extra £2 million will not solve all these problems, but it will go a long way to help tackle some of the barriers that have limited access for too long. The Assembly Government previously announced that it would make £2 million available to invest in the arts outside Cardiff. This complements the investment in performance arts at the Wales Millennium Centre. Today, I will explain where this money will go and how it will be spent.

Wales has a network of medium-sized theatres. This will soon be strengthened by new developments in Newport, Wrexham and Caernarfon. This morning, I was at the Park and Dare Theatre in Treorchy, to see how it has improved through investment. Leighton Andrews has been following developments there with keen interest. At the invitation of Tamsin Dunwoody-Kneafsey, I visited the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven last month. That is an excellent example of a good theatre in need of help to bring its facilities into the twenty-first century. While we have some first-rate performance venues in Wales, in fairness, the full picture is not entirely rosy. Some of our theatres try to present a reasonable face to their customers. However, a closer inspection shows that they are rapidly ageing, are structurally unsound and are of limited appeal to the public. Any of these would be a highly appropriate venue for the next Welsh Conservative conference. The Arts Council of Wales is taking steps to tackle the backlog of theatre repairs. Making our Welsh theatres appealing to the public, and to the people who work in them, is a priority for the arts council; making the Welsh Conservatives equally appealing strikes me as mission impossible.

Most of the new funding that I am announcing today will be spent on putting more, high-quality product on the stages of our medium-sized theatres—growing the indigenous theatre in Wales, supporting our writers, directors and performers. The balance of the funding will go to support small-scale venues across our nation. Micro performance in smaller venues and non-traditional venues, such as community centres, will be a key feature. I expect Communities First areas to feature significantly in this programme. With realistic ticket prices, the minimum of travel, focused marketing and a compelling product, I believe that we can bring the performing arts to an audience that has previously been excluded.

I propose to channel this money through the arts council, as a ring-fenced fund. Reporting arrangements will be put in place so that everyone can track progress. In the first financial year, I will make £250,000 available, progressively building up to the full £2 million allocation. Our culture is the aggregate of our actions and aspirations, interests and passions, values and beliefs. I am proud to serve in a Government that honours the role of culture in modern Wales.

2.50 p.m.

Owen John Thomas: I welcome the Minister’s announcement that he will eventually spend £2 million a year on the arts outside Cardiff. Plaid Cymru recognises that a healthy nation requires not only a successful capital, but also a network of regional centres that are large enough to sustain an adequate range of prime attractions.

In bringing the original proposal for the Wales Millennium Centre before the National Assembly, the former Finance Minister, Edwina Hart, showed that she shared the vision of a well-balanced Wales. Her motion won all-party support, the nation gained a Wales Millennium Centre, of which we can all be proud, and a further small step was taken towards recognising the need to develop regional centres of growth. In promoting the arts outside Cardiff, Minister, I hope that your vision will fit into this larger picture.

In investing in the arts outside the capital, one should avoid the temptation of spreading the butter so thinly that its impact is minimal. Your proposal, therefore, to concentrate on medium-sized theatres—Newport, Caernarfon, Wrexham and Milford Haven were mentioned—is a good start. However, your reference to the balance of the funding going to support small-scale venues across Wales causes concern. Do you agree that, in order to build a flourishing Wales, we first need to promote a limited number of centres, where a combination of cultural and sporting facilities, and quality jobs will help to combat outward migration?

I had understood the promise that Edwina Hart made when she was Finance Minister to mean that £2 million a year would be available. Your reference to £250,000, which will work up to £2 million, is a shock and a disappointment. I hope that you will reach that figure of £2 million in the second year at least. If you share the vision of cultural tourism, namely helping Wales to grow from within, do you agree that you will need to invest at least £2 million per annum?

Do you also agree that promoting the arts in the four corners of Wales will encourage more people to travel to Cardiff to enjoy entertainment in the Wales Millennium Centre? Will you press your fellow Cabinet members, therefore, to invest in excellent road and rail links to make this possible, or do you think that we should abandon such a vision and merely play at governing ourselves?

Alun Pugh: You have raised many points. I will start with the announcement of the money. It was always intended that the expenditure would be ramped up, and that that £2 million would not be available in the first year. We will make a substantial downpayment with the £250,000. Your point on spreading money thinly is well made. We could all make a case for more ballet or for more opera but, if we decide to spread this money across all of the art forms, it will not make a significant impact. That is why my statement mentioned priorities.

On spending more than £2 million, not a day goes by without Plaid Cymru Members calling for more expenditure here and more expenditure there—that is the difference between being in Government and being in opposition. On the mid-scale point, the majority of this money will be spent on developing the new venues that are being created across Wales, and the existing venues. These venues need to have a compelling product to offer. I will not apologise for investing some of that money into non-traditional performance venues, such as community centres, as that will provide a first step on the ladder for many people who have previously been excluded from the performing arts.

Rosemary Butler: I am pleased that you have made this announcement. As I recall from discussions at the Culture, Welsh Language and Sport Committee, the £2 million was to be in place when the WMC opened. Therefore, I am pleased that you are investing money before the WMC is open. That will give Wales the opportunity to stage quality productions. At present, the amount of money that can be spent on productions is restricted, so you have smaller productions and fewer actors. This money will allow more actors on stage and more quality productions to travel across Wales.

The point that Owen John made about realistic prices is important. Theatres must be accessible and must charge realistic prices. I am delighted that this new network of regional theatres will stage productions across Wales. I look forward to that and to the smaller performance venues, which exist throughout the Valleys and in my constituency, having the opportunity to see quality productions also. Well done, Minister.

Alun Pugh: I look forward to the Wales Millennium Centre coming on-stream next year. It will be a fantastic lift for the performing arts in Wales. However, Wales is not just about Cardiff. That is why I wanted to ensure that everybody is clear about the development of these additional centres, and I know that you will be looking forward to the opening of the new Newport centre, Rosemary. The Wales Millennium Centre is a fantastic building. However, at the end of the day, this issue is driven by content. This announcement will ensure that there is more content and fewer dark nights on stages in Wales.

Lisa Francis: I endorse your comments on theatre, Minister. However, we must remember that sometimes theatre is not only about what goes on inside a building. As we discussed at the Culture, Welsh Language and Sport Committee meeting last week, we must also consider our festivals. A reduction in lottery money has taken its toll and has created fragility in this area, especially in west Wales. Festivals are important, not only for economic regeneration, but also for tourism. Two examples are the Faenol festival, and the Aberystwyth Punch and Judy festival, which is deemed to be politically incorrect by some, but for many is their first introduction to live theatre, and has been nominated for a Wales Tourist Board award. Do you envisage that permanent sites will be found for other festivals, such as the national eisteddfod, the Urdd eisteddfod or the cerdd dant festival?

I look forward to hearing more about theatre developments in Wrexham, Caernarfon and Newport. We also need to consider how the arts council relates to local authorities, particularly to Communities First projects. How much money, out of the £2 million, do you anticipate investing in this? Will more money be invested in dance in Wales? Before the summer recess, you said that you looked forward to a vigorous debate on the art gallery policy. However, that was not mentioned in today’s statement. I am sure that you are aware of the 600-strong collection of Graham Sutherland paintings that are still buried in a warehouse in Cardiff. This collection was left to the people of Pembrokeshire—

The Presiding Officer: Order. Will you please ask a question? We do not want a history of Graham Sutherland, although I find it interesting.

Lisa Francis: Will any of the £2 million be spent on visual arts? Will you ringfence money for arts disability projects? Finally, on the Wales Millennium Centre, which, as a centre of excellence, should be the gateway for arts for the rest of Wales, you said in your statement before the summer recess that you would update us again in the autumn on all progress made. When will that be?

Alun Pugh: Eisteddfod location policy—whether or not they decide to move to a permanent site, be completely nomadic or rotate around a relatively small number of venues—is a matter for the various eisteddfod authorities. I will resist your invitation to spread the £2 million more thinly. The money needs to be reasonably concentrated, otherwise we are in danger of making little impact. Festivals, including Punch and Judy shows, are worthy of support, but spreading the £2 million too thinly is not the way to do it.

Eleanor Burnham: As a directly elected North Wales regional Liberal Democrat Member, I welcome your statement, which is not Cardiff-centric. However, I am disappointed that only £250,000 is available in year 1, as has been discussed before. Will you consider, and possibly improve, that? Do you not have a moral obligation to make the £2 million available in the 2005-06 financial year? I understand your reasons for distributing money via the arts council. However, many performing arts venues are council-owned. We have heard that the Wrexham Theatre could be in jeopardy, because we understand that the builders have decided to pull out. Is that the case? Upgrading buildings is important, and the Wrexham Theatre is dear to our hearts. However, so are other community theatres, for instance, the Stiwt Theatre in Rhosllannerchrugog, and the Little Theatre in Wrexham. There is a great worry in the area that, with the Wrexham theatre coming on-stream, they will lose their funding. Can you reassure us about that?

Surely, the idea of the £2 million was to complement the Wales Millennium Centre spend? Will money be made available to ensure that the companies which perform in the Wales Millennium Centre are able to tour the smallest and poorest communities, to bring the best of our culture to all the people of Wales? When Liberal Democrat Jenny Randerson was Minister for Culture, Sport and the Welsh Language, she established a £2 million initiative to enable the Arts Council of Wales to carry out a full review of the condition of performance venues throughout Wales. That revealed the huge need for capital investment—

3.00 p.m.

The Presiding Officer: Order. I had intended to call the former culture Minister to speak, but I may not be able to do so because all of our time will have been taken up by a further preamble. Could we have sharper questions, please?

Eleanor Burnham: I beg your indulgence, Presiding Officer.

The Presiding Officer: You will not have my indulgence. [Laughter.] We want sharp questions on statements, please.

Eleanor Burnham: Can we have a commitment, Minister, that this money will be available for other performing arts, not just for theatre? Now, surely—

The Presiding Officer: Order. I am sorry, we cannot have speeches in lieu of statements. We have had three today, and it is not appropriate. The Minister will now answer the questions.

Alun Pugh: I will try to answer some of those questions.

The funding was always going to be ramped up, with £250,000 investment available in the first year. The Wales Millennium Centre does not open until half-way through the financial year, but the £2 million will be well on-stream during this Assembly.

On your point about geography, Eleanor, I want this money to be spread across our nation. I would certainly like to see Theatr Colwyn in Clwyd West, a seat with which you are familiar, get some of the money. I have seen nothing official concerning Wrexham yet.

John Marek: I want to see the national theatre of Wales established in north-east Wales by merging Clwyd Theatr Cymru at Mold, which houses what must be our foremost production and theatre company, with the William Aston Hall at the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education. That is a 1,000-seater auditorium in need of some improvement, including a wider stage and a flytower to house proper productions. That would cost around £3 million. Unfortunately, Alun is set on building a conference centre and theatre in Wrexham, at the behest of the local council, which will cost £8 million. The contractor of that project pulled out last night so, again, that is in the air. I share Eleanor Burnham’s concerns. However, if you build that theatre—not for £250,000 or £2 million, but for at least £8 million—then the Stiwt, with equivalent facilities, NEWI , the theatre and the Wrexham Musical Theatre will all suffer. The Wrexham Hippodrome, which is a theatre and is listed, will not be used. Unfortunately, this project is determined because Wrexham council insists on it in the face of the majority of public opinion locally. You are not even prepared to see me, Minister, and I would like to know why. If I may say so—

The Presiding Officer: Order. Could we have a question, please?

John Marek: I want to know why the Minister would not see me. He did not e-mail me, did not phone my constituency office or my staff as Deputy Presiding Officer. As the contractor has pulled out, is it not time for a little sense on this stupid project?

Alun Pugh: I agree with your comments on the excellence of the work produced at Clwyd Theatr Cymru. I have attended that theatre for many years and have seen some terrific productions. The company is a credit to Wales.

On your comments about Wrexham, the Welsh Assembly Government supported the local democratically elected council in its decision. Concerning your attempts to contact me, I am happy to show you our records; my office made two attempts to contact you before the announcement was made.

Leighton Andrews: Minister, when you were at the Park and Dare Theatre this morning, did you have the opportunity to talk with Rhondda Cynon Taf Community Arts, one of four community arts projects in the Rhondda supported by the Arts Council of Wales? Do you agree that it is important that non-traditional community arts venues and schemes continue to be supported both by this fund and by the arts council? There should be no guaranteed blank cheques to large national arts institutions if that means squeezing out support for community arts schemes and venues.

Alun Pugh: I was pleased to see the programme and the fantastic refurbishment work undertaken in the venue that I visited this morning. I agree that non-traditional schemes are worthy of the support of the innovative fund that I have announced today. After yesterday’s discussions, I am sure that all Members recognise that I am not in the business of offering blank cheques to anyone.

Alun Ffred Jones: Pryd y bydd y £2 filiwn ar gael i’w gwario yn y gwahanol ganolfannau?
Alun Ffred Jones: When will the £2 million be available to be spent in the various centres?

Alun Pugh: I intend to put in £0.25 million in the first year, £1 million in the second year and the full £2 million in the third year and subsequent years.

Jenny Randerson: I am grateful for that last piece of information. I welcome the fact that we will eventually get the £2 million. The money envisaged for the year when the WMC will open should, pro rata, be much closer to £1 million than to £0.25 million. It was always agreed that some money would be available in the first year. As the previous Minister for Culture, Sport and the Welsh Language, I made it clear on numerous occasions that the £2 million would be available in the year 2005-06. I was grateful to the then Finance Minister, Edwina Hart, for ensuring that that money was available in the budget for that year. That money is now being siphoned off for other arts project—I hope that it is for other arts projects, and that it is not going to other budgets. If you will not spend the full £2 million—you have just committed to spending £1 million—where will the money go instead? There will be huge disappointment outside Cardiff that the commitment to spending the full £2 million—a commitment which was made in public on several occasions—will not be honoured until 2006-07. I appreciate that it is your prerogative to change the promise and the way in which the money will be spent. However, the people of Wales deserve an explanation as to where the money will go instead. Perhaps this is one reason why the people of Wales should be beginning to regret the fact that we no longer have a partnership Government.

Alun Pugh: It was always intended that the money would be ramped up. The Wales Millennium Centre opens next year, and there will be a part-year allocation of money to support the performing arts outside Cardiff. There is a steep rise of £1 million in the following year and £2 million in the year after that. A sum of £2 million was promised for the arts outside Cardiff to complement the creation of the WMC, and £2 million will be delivered.

Peter Law: As a Rhondda boy, you will appreciate the effect of this announcement on deprived communities. It is particularly welcome for Blaenau Gwent, which has been a cultural desert for years and where we have had to rely on our friends in Gwent Theatre in Education to keep things going. I therefore welcome your announcement. Funding of £2 million is a good start. However, given that the same amount will be given in annual revenue subsidies to the opera house across the road, more money is needed. Do you agree that, contrary to Owen John Thomas’s comments, it is appropriate that small-scale venues should receive this funding as they work at the heart of deprived communities and encourage people to enjoy the arts? Will you make support available for traditional companies, such as that which I mentioned, which have always been the mainstay in areas such as that which I represent, as well as encourage larger companies such as the Welsh National Opera to visit our communities, and follow the example of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which visited Ebbw Vale?

Alun Pugh: You are right to defend the role of small-scale performances. It is a combination of realistic ticket prices and keeping travel to a minimum, because it is not easy to return to the Valleys from Cardiff late at night. If we can ensure focused marketing and a compelling product—the £2 million will be invested in developing such products—we can bring performing arts to those who have not previously enjoyed them.

3.10 p.m.

Ann Jones: I welcome your statement as part of the delivery of our social justice policy across Wales. The WNO was happy to use the theatre in Rhyl for an educational project involving some 200 children. The experience of treading the boards enjoyed by those children will sadly not be built on because of the WNO’s reluctance to include Rhyl in its commitment to touring and staging full-scale productions. What can you do to persuade the WNO to use theatres such as that in Rhyl to stage productions in north Wales?

Alun Pugh: I understand your concerns regarding the promotion of the Pavilion Theatre Rhyl as a main-scale venue. I was in the Rhyl audience when the WNO toured north Wales with an OperaMax performance. The local school children were fantastic in that performance. As far as WNO main-scale theatre is concerned, it has moved from one to two performances a year in Llandudno. I think that the company needs to digest that move first.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas: Mae gallu’r Gweinidog i ailysgrifennu hanes yn rhyfeddol. Erbyn hyn, mae hyd yn oed yn gwybod yn well na’r cyn-Weinidog dros ddiwylliant beth oedd y polisi cyn mis Mai diwethaf. Cadarnhaf yr hyn a ddywedodd Jenny Randerson: yr oedd yr arian yn y gyllideb ac yr oedd y Gweinidog wedi dweud hynny wrth y Pwyllgor Diwylliant. Mae arian yn y gyllideb hefyd ar gyfer partneriaeth gyda’r ardd fotaneg genedlaethol. Ble mae’r arian hwn wedi mynd? A oes ymrwymiad i sicrhau bod yr arian yn y gyllideb ar gyfer y celfyddydau yn cael ei wario ar y celfyddydau, neu a yw’r Gweinidog yma i ddweud wrthym y bydd llai, nid mwy, o arian ar gyfer y celfyddydau yng Nghymru yn ystod ei deyrnasiad fel Gweinidog?
Rhodri Glyn Thomas: The Minister’s ability to rewrite history is staggering. He now knows, even better than his predecessor, what the policy was prior to last May. I confirm what Jenny Randerson said: there was money in the budget and the Minister had informed the Culture Committee of that. There is also money in the budget for a partnership with the national botanic garden. Where has that money gone? Is there a commitment to ensuring that the money in the budget for the arts will be spent on the arts, or is the Minister trying to tell us that there will be less, not more, money for the arts in Wales during his reign as Minister?

Alun Pugh: The money is in the arts budget. A total of £2 million was promised and £2 million has been delivered. This will lead to a major expansion in our indigenous network of directors, producers and actors. It is a real investment in building audiences. As far as the botanic garden is concerned, if I were to scrap today’s announcement and put every penny into funding the garden, it would not be enough.

Christine Chapman: I welcome this statement. I have talked with arts professionals in my constituency who feel strongly about arts development in the Valleys. They have been frustrated by the lack of investment in facilities in this area of Wales. I am sure that they would welcome today’s announcement. Do you agree that it is vital that money set aside for the development of the arts makes its way down the pipeline to those who deliver arts in communities, and that it is adequately publicised so that those people can see how to obtain the money? Do you also agree that it is important that people in the south Wales Valleys have access to the kind of large facilities available in such places as Rhyl, Wrexham, Aberystwyth and Cardiff? I am aware that the debate is ongoing, but will you give a commitment to drive through the development of services for the south Wales Valleys?

Alun Pugh: I hope that the Valleys in general, and Communities First areas in particular, will benefit from the money announced today. Venues such as the Cwmaman Institute in Christine’s constituency will be among the many recipients of the additional funding.

Janet Ryder: The much-vaunted £2 million only matches the revenue being invested in the Wales Millennium Centre. However, a great deal of capital has also been invested in the project. While everyone accepts that we need this centre in Cardiff, similar investment in arts infrastructure is needed throughout Wales. Will you consider making a similar investment in the development of a national collection of contemporary art based outside Wrexham, but hopefully in north Wales, and in a building for such a collection? Finally, you said that your portfolio would be driven by Labour values, but how can someone who is a member of a party led by the arch-Tory, Tony Blair, purport to put forward Labour values?

Alun Pugh: I said in my statement that not a single day goes by without a call from Plaid Cymru for more money for various projects. A record has been set this afternoon, as we have had two separate requests in just 10 minutes.

John Griffiths: I welcome your statement, particularly its reference to Newport and the new arts centre there. Do you agree that there are places outside Cardiff where there are many exciting developments—a lot is happening in Newport in addition to the arts centre—and that those developments need sustained support from the Assembly Government, the Arts Council of Wales and elsewhere if we are to see the arts spread across Wales outside of the capital city?

Alun Pugh: There is a thriving arts scene in Newport, but I am aware that not everyone can take part in that at the moment. This is about creating more products and being innovative in terms of marketing and particularly in terms of venues. I would have thought that there are many community centres throughout Wales that could hold performances of the sort that I have envisaged this afternoon.

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