HC Deb 29 June 1995 vol 262 cc1137-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells.]

6.40 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I welcome the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the subject of Elstree studios—a matter of deep interest to my constituents, who take a great pride in our cinematic tradition. No doubt, the House will be aware that Elstree is a proud name in the history of the British cinema. Such great British movies of the past as "The Dambusters" and "Moby Dick" were made there, and my constituents are used to seeing the great faces of British cinema in their streets. Throughout Elstree and Borehamwood, there is a rich heritage of cinematic tradition, and much film-making skill. More recently, Elstree has played host to some major Hollywood productions, including the "Star Wars" films and the Indiana Jones trilogy, with which hon. Members are no doubt familiar.

However, a great change took place in the fortunes of Elstree studios when they were acquired by Brent Walker in 1988. Brent Walker acquired the site on the strict understanding with the local authority, Hertsmere borough council, that planning consent would be given for the development of about half the site for retail purposes while the remainder was to be developed for use in the film industry. That was built into the planning agreement between Brent Walker and the council.

Since 1988, something of a saga has developed over Brent Walker's ownership of Elstree. I draw two material points to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister. First—this is most important to my constituents—Brent Walker has not carried out its undertaking to develop the remaining part of the studios for the purposes of film making. Sadly, the studios in which such proud British films were made remain dark and unused. Secondly, notwithstanding Brent Walker's assertions to the contrary, there has been much real and substantial interest among other film makers in continuing film production at Elstree. There is clear evidence of that, and Hertsmere council knows of it.

I am fortified in that assertion by the conclusion of the Select Committee on National Heritage, whose members came to Elstree late last year. The residents of Elstree and the council were grateful to the Committee for the interest that it took, and it was firm in its conclusions that there was interest in, and a continuing future for, the studios.

Having investigated the situation carefully, the Committee's conclusion was: The Committee applauds the efforts of Hertsmere Borough Council to enable film production to be resumed at the historic Elstree studios, welcomes Twentieth Century-Fox's indication of interest, and deplores the dog-in-the-manger attitude of Brent Walker. It hopes that the situation will be speedily resolved and that Elstree Studios will once again be listed among the UK's functioning film studios. My constituents would say amen to that.

"Dog-in-the-manger" is a good phrase to describe Brent Walker's behaviour throughout the saga, and many of my constituents would welcome a change in the ownership of the studios so that films could be made there again. That is why they fully support the efforts of Hertsmere borough council to bring that about.

After the long saga caused by Brent Walker's dog-in-the-manger attitude, the council finally brought matters to a head. Earlier this month, it gave Brent Walker 14 days to agree purchase by negotiation before compulsory purchase proceedings would be initiated. That deadline expired on 16 June, and Hertsmere is now pressing ahead with its stated intention.

I welcome the opportunity that the debate gives me to place on record my support for the council's course of action—a course supported by all the parties on the council. There is also great support in Borehamwood. I also agree with the Select Committee's conclusions about the future of Elstree studios. Obviously, their immediate future is in the hands of the council, but their long-term future is linked to the overall health of the British film industry, and that is the subject that I shall talk about next.

Incidentally, Elstree studios are not the only film-making interest for my constituents. Not far away are the Third Millennium studios, which are using Leavesden aerodrome as the studios for the new James Bond movie "Goldeneye". That is of great interest to many of my constituents. No doubt, their film-making skills are being put to good use there. I am sure that they are glad to see that James Bond has followed such other important figures as Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones and Inspector Morse in beating a path to Hertfordshire. With all those people coming to Hertfordshire, it is not surprising that our crime rate is falling.

Those are the ambitious plans for film making close to my constituency. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), who takes a great interest in such matters and has spoken of turning Watford into the Hollywood of western Europe. No doubt, that is on the cards if we can bring major film productions such as "Goldeneye" to Hertfordshire.

I urge the Minister to give his full support to film making in Hertfordshire and to the British film industry as a whole. Earlier this month, the Government gave their response to the Select Committee report, and that response has been widely welcomed in the industry. It represented some good positive steps forward, based on the recommendations of the Select Committee and introducing measures for which the film industry has been asking for a long time, including the long-awaited London Film Commission to assist film making in London. That, too, will be warmly welcomed.

Measures have also been put in place to assist entry to this country for those with skills in film making, stars and so on, through changes in the work permit arrangements. The money to come from the national lottery should not be overlooked either. That will be an important source of funds for film making—a fact that has been widely welcomed, not least in my constituency, where I understand that £85,000 of lottery money has been allocated to investigate the feasibility of a permanent display at Elstree studios.

One of the major proposals for reviving our film industry involves fiscal incentives. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State dealt with that idea in his statement to the House on 6 June. Rightly and understandably, he said that considering the merits of fiscal incentives was a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer when planning his Budget.

What my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage said was welcomed by the film industry. In his statement, he went as far as to say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would carefully consider the Committee's recommendations together with the logic that underpins them."—[Official Report, 6 June 1995; Vol. 261, c. 20.] That has been interpreted, I hope rightly, in the film industry as a sign that the Government are listening to its concerns and proposals. The industry hopes that the proposals will be given the careful consideration that they undoubtedly merit. If there is an open door there, I shall, perhaps, push it a little further open this evening by urging my hon. Friend the Minister to do what the Chancellor said, and to consider carefully the long-standing and well-considered case that has been put forward by the film industry.

I press on my hon. Friend one particular measure—accelerated tax write-offs for film production. The industry is asking for such write-offs to take place in the first year of production rather than over three years, as at present. That is one of the points that the industry has made firmly and on which there is said to be consensus in the film industry. Certainly, it was one of the proposals made by the Producers Alliance. I understand that it also had the support of the British Film Commission. The Select Committee on National Heritage treated the proposal with great seriousness and put it forward as one of its recommendations. There is a consensus view that, of all the fiscal measures, that one especially commends attention. I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to look carefully at the case put by the film industry. It says that, in the particular circumstances of film making in this country, with the independent productions that we tend to have, this measure would assist film making and encourage investment in film making. The industry believes that it could be just the measure needed to tip the balance in favour of film making, to give it the boost that would turn this country into a major source of film production and to improve our already very good standing.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look carefully at the proposal and the merits that underpin it. He must look carefully at the great potential for film making. We have great natural advantages—the skills of our technicians and film makers, and the excellence of our artists, actors, producers and directors. We also have the great advantage of the English language, which gives us a flying start over so many of our competitors. Everybody who has looked at our film industry believes that the potential is there.

Certainly, we have done well in recent years and there have been clear signs of revival in the film industry, which are very welcome. The measures that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage announced earlier this month will undoubtedly help the industry. However, the help could go a lot further than that. We have seen tremendous films of great excellence made in this country in the past couple of years. I am thinking not just of the obvious choice that everyone mentions—"Four Weddings and a Funeral"—but of other good films such as "Shadowlands", "Remains of the Day", "The Madness of King George" and "Tom and Viv". Recently, we had the major American production "Rob Roy". All those films, especially the first four, are major examples of the excellence of our indigenous film industry and of the great natural assets that we have. Major productions such as "Rob Roy", besides bringing employment to the country and giving a boost to our economy, are a great showcase for the country. Films such as "Rob Roy" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" have brought the British countryside, the beauty of Scotland and our English way of life to the attention of people all over the world. They have been a showcase as well as providing welcome jobs.

That is the great advantage of the film industry. There is no doubt that it will be one of the growth industries, in which this country could be a major player. As I have said, the right steps have been taken. If the right fiscal incentives were given as well, the industry's potential would be increased. There is, clearly, an enormous advantage for this country to gain. I commend all my arguments to my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that the film industry has been putting those arguments carefully to him. I urge him to listen carefully to what the industry proposes.

It is the earnest hope of my constituents that Elstree and Borehamwood can, once again, play a proud part in film making, as they did in the past. I hope that the cameras can start rolling, that the studios can be lit, that, once again, the big stars will come through Borehamwood and that the big productions, which give employment to so many of my constituents and cause so much pride, will come to the area. I hope that once again, Elstree will be synonymous with excellence in film making and that we can light up not just this country, but the whole world with the excellence of our British films.

6.54 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing this debate at a time when the National Heritage Select Committee's report and the Government's recent response have focused attention on the film industry.

My hon. Friend has referred to the impressive record the studios at Elstree have held in the history of the film industry. No one could deny the enormous contribution that Elstree has made to film making in this country, but the future of the studios is, subject to any necessary planning consents, a matter for the owners to decide. It is not for the Government to determine a matter that should be for the commercial judgment of private companies.

I shall put Elstree in the context of the current position of the film industry and the excellent opportunities which lie before it. Over the past three years, there has been a marked increase in the number of British-produced films made, from 32 films in 1992 to 49 last year. There has been an equivalent rise in the amount of investment by overseas production companies in the UK, up from less than £70 million in 1992 to more than £176 million in 1994. In all, 89 films were made with significant British involvement in 1994, with total budgets amounting to more than £450 million. This, coupled with a fast-growing audience for film and the development of new technologies in the audiovisual industry, presents us with a time of great opportunity for the film industry.

In his recent statement to the House, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage referred to the two strands in which these opportunities lie: first, the opportunity to attract film makers from overseas to the UK and, secondly, the opportunity for British film makers to take advantage of the acknowledged strength of their industry.

To help the industry respond to the opportunities offered by overseas production, the Government agreed last year to continue support for the excellent work of the British Film Commission in attracting foreign film makers to the UK. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we have recently announced that we shall also provide pump-priming support for the establishment of a film commission in London. The lack of a commission in London, where most of the UK's technicians and film and television facilities are based, has proved to be a notable gap in the network of film commissions throughout the UK and a material weakness when marketing the UK as a place to film.

In the production of British films, British Screen Finance has been extremely successful in encouraging investment in feature film production and it has an impressive record in recouping loans to reinvest in new productions, without compromising its remit of encouraging new talent. To date, it has invested in more than 100 feature films, including "Land and Freedom", which won an award at Cannes this year, and "Jack and Sarah", which was released this month. In recognition of its achievements, we intend to continue funding British Screen Finance beyond the present financial year.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirmed, in his statement recently, a new source of funding for film production—the national lottery, which my hon. Friend rightly mentioned. The Arts Council of England has said that, depending on the quality of applications it receives, it could invest more than £70 million by the year 2000 in the production of British films, in partnership with others such as Channel 4 and the BBC.

We are also considering the ways in which the industry might be developed into a stronger and more established sector. To that end, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced that we intend to set up an advisory committee comprising representatives of financial institutions and production companies to examine the issues involved.

My hon. Friend called for 100 per cent. first-year tax write-offs for expenditure on film production. This is not a new suggestion; indeed, it was one of the recommendations put forward by the National Heritage Select Committee. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear in his statement that the Government would bear in mind the Committee's tax recommendations in the run-up to the next Budget, but there is nothing that I can usefully add to that on this occasion because tax policy is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Government support international co-production through membership of Eurimages, enabling 49 British productions to go ahead since the United Kingdom joined the scheme in 1993. Most of the Eurimages-funded films are low budget, but the UK has been particularly successful in gaining support for higher-budget films. The Government-funded European Co-production Fund, administered by British Screen Finance, has supported co-productions with 14 other countries, enabling film makers to access state support in each of the co-producer's countries.

Since the inception of the European Co-production Fund in 1991, the number of UK co-productions has increased from 12 in 1992 to 32 in 1994. There is, however, little point in encouraging production if the films made are not also shown widely to British audiences. Many British films do not achieve wide distribution because of inadequate marketing and because too few prints are available for circulation. The Arts Council has agreed that, provided it receives sound applications, it could make more than £14 million available over the next five years for distribution and cinema improvements.

As a well-planned London launch is important if a film is to generate effective media attention, the Government are also providing funding for a study to examine the feasibility of a west end showcase to provide a venue for premieres of smaller-scale British films. This would be intended to generate the publicity necessary for a successful UK-wide cinema release. We plan to involve other organisations in the study, and the BBC has already said that it would like to be involved. Should the feasibility study show that the scheme would be viable, others would need to take it forward.

In this year of the cinema centenary, we have a unique opportunity to promote cinema-going to the British public. Plans have been drawn up by an industry organisation, Cinema 100, to celebrate the centenary and the Government have agreed to provide £180,000 this year towards the cost of its initiatives. I have mentioned a number of new initiatives, but the Government's interest in film is long term, as support for existing measures demonstrates.

The National Film and Television School, which recently announced that it plans to move to new premises at Ealing studios, is supported annually by a Government contribution of £1.85 million. The school prepares graduate students for careers in film and television, and graduates enjoy a 100 per cent. success rate in finding employment. Since 1973, students have won more than 250 awards for films at international festivals and industry ceremonies.

Film is a cultural as well as an economic activity, and in recognition of this, the Government provide substantial support for the British Film Institute. The institute's primary role is to encourage the understanding and development of moving image culture in all its forms. The BFI operates a world-class library, the Museum of the Moving Image, the national film and television archive and, through the national film theatre and grants to the regional film theatres, enables the public to see and appreciate a wide range of world cinema.

The Government also provided support for the original five-year MEDIA programme, which is now coming to an end. It was designed to enhance the strength of member states' national audiovisual industries by encouraging greater collaboration and wider distribution of their products. The UK has pushed for its successor, MEDIA II, to focus on three areas: training, project development and distribution. The UK has played an active part in negotiations on MEDIA II, ensuring where possible that the views of the UK industry are taken into account in shaping the programme. Ministers have now reached a common position in the European Council on the decisions for implementing MEDIA II. The Government believe that MEDIA II will help to consolidate the achievements of the current programme while maintaining its momentum.

During its presidency, the UK was a major driving force in refocusing Audiovisual Eureka, the pan-European initiative, designed to strengthen the audiovisual industry. The Government provide support in the form of a contribution towards the maintenance and work of the Brussels-based Eureka permanent secretariat.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that all the measures that I have mentioned add up to considerable evidence that the Government wish to encourage the future development of an exciting and vital industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is, at this time, actively taking steps to move forward the initiatives announced in his recent statement, which I am glad my hon. Friend so warmly welcomed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Seven o'clock.