HL Deb 12 July 1983 vol 443 cc772-82

6.59 p.m.

Lord Strabolgi rose to ask Her Majesty's Government why they have decided to cancel the plan for a theatre museum in Covent Garden in view of their previous commitment to this project.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as this is the first arts debate that the House has had since the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, was appointed Minister for the Arts, may I first congratulate him on his appointment, which I warmly welcome. I am particularly glad that we have the Arts Minister once again in this House. The noble Earl's right honourable friend Mr. Paul Channon, his predecessor as Minister for the Arts, always fought hard and successfully for the arts budget, as indeed did the noble Earl, Lord Avon. I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, will do the same.

It was Mr. Channon who gave the go-ahead for the theatre museum project in Covent Garden, just about a year ago. The idea of a theatre museum has been supported of course by every Arts Minister up till now. The British Theatre Museum Association was formed as long ago as 1957. We are greatly concerned that the Government appear to have gone back on their original undertaking, and decided to cancel this splendid project. This is surely a breach of faith with all those who campaigned so hard for this museum. There has been a petition with 15,000 signatures which, I suggest, refutes the theory that the museum has only a few supporters. In particular, it is a breach of faith with those generous donors and benefactors who have given important and valuable material on the understanding that a theatre museum would be established. Fourteen major collections have been donated, for example, since 1975.

The whole collection is valued at about £23 million, of which only £100,000 has been spent by the nation on acquisitions. All the rest has come from bequests and gifts. These collections cover a wide range. There are the Diaghilev scenery and costumes, including Picasso's drop curtain for the ballet "Le Train Bleu" and five other important Diaghilev drop curtains, including those for the ballets "Firebird", "Sleeping Beauty" and "Prince Igor"; when these curtains were shown at Olympia recently they were insured for £1 million. There are the Gabrielle Enthoven and Harry Beard collections; the Hippsley-Cox circus collection, probably the finest in the world; the Marie Rambert collection, which was bequeathed expressly with this understanding; and a collection—to show the range—devoted to Jack Buchanan, as well as stage sets, costumes, play bills, programmes and much else.

What is now to happen to all this material? It is at present stored where much of it has been stored for some years in very cramped conditions at the V &A. The curator and his staff make every effort, but it is difficult for researchers and others to gain access in anything other than the most difficult conditions. Occasionally the V & A is able to put on a small temporary exhibition, such as the Images of Show Business exhibition. Some of the ballet costumes were shown at Liberty's some months ago, and more recently the V & A arranged a charming little exhibition around "A Month in the Country", for the centenary of Turgenev's death. These small shows give some idea of the richness, variety and scope of the whole collection, and some idea of what the public are being denied by shortsighted stinginess, and what the Prime Minister in another context has called "candle-end saving".

Because, my Lords, how much money is involved? About £4 million, I understand, spread over a few years, against which must be offset the cost of storing and maintaining the collection at the V & A, which amounts to several hundred thousand pounds a year, with design and planning costs which have been incurred to date of about £2½ million. Now that Covent Garden is such a wonderful success and the district attracts large crowds, I should have thought that the museum would be a great tourist attraction. There is a tremendous interest in the theatre and ballet, particularly among young people. There would be considerable opportunities, surely, for a plurality of funding from such sources as sponsorship, the profits from the sale of books, reproductions and souvenirs—as is done so successfully at the British Museum—and also possibly from admission charges for special exhibitions, which I personally have never been against.

Covent Garden is surely an ideal location, especially since it has been saved from destruction and has become a most attractive town centre and what a city, surely, should be like. Covent Garden has been connected with the theatre since the 17th centry. Not only are the Royal Opera House and Drury Lane adjacent to the Floral Market site, but several other theatres are in the vicinity; moreover, there is a thriving street theatre in the Piazza as well, which is very popular and attracts large crowds. I have the good fortune to work there myself, so I walk through it twice a day and I can vouch for that. The former flower market in Covent Garden is thus, in the view of most people who care about this exciting project—and there are many—an ideal place for the theatre museum. The building itself has tremendous possibilities, particularly the large lower ground floor. Theatrical exhibits, which of course are designed for artificial light, need artificial light to do them justice.

I am concerned, too, about the position of the lease. Contracts were to have been exchanged, I understand, last Friday. Does the noble Earl realise that we shall probably lose this site if the contract side is not tied up now? Can he not get a lien on the lease? Can he assure the House that he will not let this site be lost through delay?

Britain has always excelled, as we all know, in the art of drama since Shakespeare's day, yet we are still the last civilised country not to have a theatre museum. The Germans, for example, are at present spending £17 million on a theatre museum in Cologne. May I ask the noble Earl if he consulted any of his colleagues in the Government about this decision or any of the advisory bodies, or interested parties? Did he consult the chairman of the V & A's advisory council, or the V & A's director, or the Museums Commission? Did he consult the new chairman of the V & A's trustees, after the museum becomes independent? Or did he make an individual decision on his own? I hope that the noble Earl will be able to assure the House that he has had second thoughts, and has decided, on reflection, to rescind what appears to be a hasty and ill-considered decision. My Lords, I beg to ask the Question.

7.9 p.m.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, this House is well know for treating many subjects not from any party political point of view but because we all feel very keenly about certain aspects of our national life which transcend party politics. Today I am speaking in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has said, with real feeling and real enthusiasm for this proposition. When we had the original debate on this subject and persuaded the Minister to ignore the proposals which were made by Sir Derek Rayner, now the noble Lord, Lord Rayner, we did, I thought, an excellent job. I hope very much that my noble friend Lord Gowrie, who I admire enormously and who has great courage and, above all, great interest in the arts, will show himself to be an independent mind on this matter and will be able to persuade his colleagues that this is an investment, a valuable investment, and that the returns on the money that is to be spent—and as the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has just said, it is a very small amount—will benefit everyone.

As the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has said, we have the finest collection of costumes and assets to do with the opera, the theatre and the ballet of any nation in the world. In the course of a long history of art in this country, we have also led the world in many of the aspects of the art with which we are concerned today. It would be a tragedy, not only for this country, but for all other countries interested in the arts if, once again, all this material was to be put into store or prevented from being shown to the public. Not only would it be a tragedy, but it would be a terrible waste of money.

We are now talking about a very small sum of money compared with the amount of money which is spent on many aspects of our national life. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, said, we have already invested something like £2 million—which, after all, is not a very large sum—which would be wasted if the work which has already begun—for the plans have been made and the arrangements have been made—were stopped. If it is started again in, say, two or three years' time, it will simply mean that the cost will be far greater. We all know that. We have all had experience in varous ways of the results of postponing things because we thought that it would be an economy or would be cheaper in the future.

In my experience I have had a great deal to do with local government. I can well remember spending money on important projects and people saying to me, "You are being very extravagant"; whereas in five years' time, if I had postponed the building or whatever it was on which I was engaged, it would have cost 10 times as much. In the meantime it was erected, it was being used and it was vital to the interests of the neighbourhood at the time—I am not talking about the arts now but about social works—and saved an enormous amount of money. In addition, if I had not gone ahead, many people would have suffered greatly.

To return to the arts, if we postpone this theatre museum now, it is bound to cost us more; it cannot possibly cost less. In the meantime there will be such a waste of all this material, which will deteriorate, because it always deteriorates when it is kept in places and cupboards where it cannot be used.

I should like to relate one other small experience connected with the arts. I helped a small theatre called the Georgian Theatre in Richmond, Yorkshire, to get going after it had been reconstructed. It was in fact my sister, Lady Crathorne, who raised the money to reconstruct the theatre and it took a little time to get going. But it has been an enormous success. It is a small Georgian theatre of enormous value and it is now one of those theatres which are given grants by the Arts Council and voluntary organisations, and the whole enterprise is run very economically but very successfully. About three or four years ago we found that we had some costumes connected with the Georgian Theatre; we also found some curtains—somemise-en-sceʼn—which were quite important, and we set about raising some money to make a small theatre museum attached to the Georgian Theatre. We were fortunate to find a very generous donor who was interested in the theatre and who gave us some money towards this end, and in the Georgian Theatre we created a small costume museum. I cannot tell your Lordships what a success this has been. It attracts enormous numbers of tourists all the time. Not only do they come to see the theatre, but they come to see the museum. It is a tremendous success.

I am comparing something tiny with a very large and important enterprise. But experience shows that it pays. It brings more young people and more interest. Far from costing a great deal, once you have raised the original sum of money—which in our case was very small and in this case, in comparison, is just about as small—you get a very good return.

I should like to urge my noble friend Lord Gowrie to persuade his colleagues that this is not spending money but investing money in something that will bring in a good return. In addition, it will bring credit to this country from people overseas. It will bring interest; it will be something of which we can all be extremely proud. The longer we postpone this, the more expensive it will become; the longer we wait for an appropriate moment, the less likely that moment will be. I am perfectly certain that this is something which all of us ought to do now. As the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has said, it has already been promised and, from that point of view, I do not like any Government—whether mine or any other—to break their promises. If we were asking for something extravagant, something that would not bring in money and interest and which would not be a great contribution to the arts—certainly in Europe and possibly elsewhere—I should not feel so strongly about it, but I feel very strongly about it indeed. I know that a great many other people in the world of the arts feel the same. I hope that the Government will realise that this is something worth doing. It is not an extravagance; it is not something that will cost vast sums of money; it is something we ought to do now and of which we should be proud.

7.17 p.m.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, as the noble Baroness has said, this is not a party political matter and therefore it is very satisfactory that the deep concern which is felt about the theatre museum should have come already within the first three speeches from three different quarters of the House. Your Lordships might expect me to declare an interest on behalf of the GLC because I work for it, and recreation and the arts in London is my concern within it. But curiously enough I have no concern at all personally with the theatre museum. Hitherto it has been only a matter of a property deal; that is to say, it is dealt with by the valuer on behalf of the planning committee and the Covent Garden Panel which serves it. Nevertheless, being in the GLC I cannot be ignorant of what has been going on and therefore perhaps I might be allowed to say that I think the deal which was arranged and which so nearly went through was indeed a very sensible and a very favourable one.

That site had been empty since 1975 and for almost that length of time has been earmarked for the theatre museum. I can think of no better use for it. As the noble Lord said in moving the Motion, Covent Garden is an ideal place for a theatre museum and in fact I think daily it becomes a better place for a theatre museum. The original restoration of the market has not only been a great success in itself, but it seems to have created ripples right round that area. I begin to see that particular part of London as becoming even more special than it was one or two years ago when it first opened. So it seems to be an ideal place.

I do not think that I shall be giving any secrets away when I reveal to the House that the deal that was very nearly in operation was in fact very favourable for the museum. For a start it gave it five years rent-free. It gave it the next five years at a rent of only a quarter of the market value and that eventually rose only to half the market value. I hope I shall not be pre-empting any future discussions on that site if the Government will let it go free: but I think it is only fair to say that that was a very good deal for the theatre museum and amounts to a very, considerable support on the part of the GLC, even though I cannot claim the credit for it myself on behalf of my own department.

Having said that, let me emphasise just how dramatic the withdrawal of Government funds has been. As I said, the site has been empty since 1975 and negotiations for the theatre museum have been going on for many years now. The latest round were actually complete. The leases between the Department of the Environment and the Greater London Council were signed but not exchanged. It was actually at a meeting of lawyers called to do the exchange that the news came that the Government had decided to withdraw their funds. That is like the plot of a very bad opera.

I should like to join with the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, in welcoming the noble Earl the Minister to the Benches as Minister for the Arts. We are all pleased to see him here and we have great hopes for him; and it seems sad to welcome him with one voice—which I do most warmly—and then take him to task exactly 30 seconds later, but that is what we must do this evening, because this decision is a bad stroke for the arts.

A friend of mine—admittedly one in the museum service—on hearing what had happened said to me cynically that he believed that the Government had changed the name of this post to the Minister Against the Arts, and the only reason that the public did not know it was because there was not enough money in the revenue reserves to change the writing paper. That may have been a cynical comment, and I was able to say to him that I realised, if he did not, that the position of Minister for the Arts is never a particularly easy one. An exciting job it may be, as the noble Earl is no doubt aware, but I suspect always something of a piggy in the middle between the demands of the Treasury forever for economy and of course the demands of the arts world for funds.

I have always suspected that the Treasury mistrusted the arts world not only because it is exceedingly demanding in terms of money but also—much worse—because it is dangerously articulate. That is something which is always suspect in the mind of the public purse. Those who speak most persuasively sometimes get the least, it seems to me. I have to say that I think that is the case in the record of this Government with the arts.

I recognise that the position of the Minister is very difficult indeed, and I was able to say that to my friend when he made these cynical remarks. But my heart was only half in it because, frankly, what a dismal start to this Parliament for the arts to have a great project like this withdrawn at a moment's notice. I very much hope that the noble Earl the Minister will be able to throw these accusations hack in my teeth and reassure me utterly, and I shall be very happy to be penitent about it. If he will only say that this is merely a hiccup in the career of the theatre museum, a temporary and slight delay, then he will no doubt be praised, the Government will be forgiven and we shall all be happy.

However, what with the lease and the collections themselves, and the people who have donated them who may not he patient enough to go on much longer—I should not be surprised if they did not before long ask for them back—if this delay is long enough to lead to the collapse of the theatre museum and the collapse of this worthy project, I predict that the decision will live to haunt this Government, and indeed worse—to haunt this city and the nation.

7.23 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, I wish that I could follow my noble friend, as I think I may call him, Lord Birkett, in his optimistic belief that this is only a hiccup, and that it was through some little error that the exchange of contracts failed to take place. Hope springs eternal in the human breast—not only in Lord Birkett's but even in mine—and I hope against hope that we are going to hear tonight from the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, that it was all a mistake, and that in fact the theatre museum is going ahead as planned. Make no mistake about it, unless it goes ahead as planned it will not go ahead at all. If, as The Times said, this delay which has taken place is not denied tonight, the theatre museum delay may be final. In other words, there may be no theatre museum unless we go ahead with it on the terms currently under offer.

The Times said: A statement from the Office of Arts and Libraries yesterday said that the £5 million scheme will not go ahead for the time being, but it is feared that the postponement will he a long if not a final one". Therefore, I thought that we had better see what the statement actually said, but I have been unable to find any statement. Apparently no formal statement was in fact made. I do not know where The Times got the information from or where anybody else got it from, but, according to my information, the Office of Arts and Libraries said that there was no formal statement concerning the theatre museum but that a statement will be made tonight by the Minister. Well, of course it will, because he will be replying to this Question. But what sort of a statement is he going to make? Is he going to confirm what The Times said yesterday or is he going to deny it? This is the 64,000 dollar question.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Strabolgi on raising this question tonight, because it is urgent and important, but I cannot follow him in congratulating the Minister upon his appointment. I hope, like the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, that I shall be able to do so at the end of the debate. If so, I shall ask him before he sits down to accept my congratulations, though at the moment I can see nothing to congratulate him upon. I am very ready to utter those words if by the time he sits down he has given me something to congratulate him upon. But at the moment what have I got to congratulate him upon? The destruction of something which, when the last debate took place on this subject, was replied to in a very different way?

In an Unstarred Question which I asked last July in this Chamber, I asked the Government to reject the Rayner recommendation that the theatre museum be abandoned. I enjoyed the unusual experience of having every subsequent speaker agree with me. The noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, was wholehearted; the noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, was trenchant; the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, pointed out that the West Germans, whose theatrical history certainly is not more important than ours, were on the point of spending £17 million on a theatre museum in Cologne against our £4 million. The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, spoke for Lord Donaldson as well when he said that this betrayal—this betrayal, he called it, and I think rightly—must not be allowed to occur. The noble Lord, Lord Gibson, said that to abandon the theatre museum would be a breach of faith. The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, who has spoken equally trenchantly tonight, and the noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, said—and I am sure that they were right then and that the noble Baroness is right tonight—that they spoke for many Conservative Peers in saying that the theatre museum must not go.

The noble Earl, Lord Avon, welcomed these speeches, and it was an open secret at the time that the then Minister, Mr. Channon, who sat on the steps of the Throne for much of that debate, warmly welcomed the unanimous support given in this House for the struggle he was having to persuade the Government, and in particular the Treasury, to throw out the Rayner recommendation. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Avon, said, recalling the history of the theatre museum: The process took a new turn following the decision announced by Lord Jenkins when he was Minister of State for the Arts on 5th September 1975 that the museum should go to the premises of the former flower market in, Covent Garden. We all pay tribute to him, everybody has done so in this evening for that decision.". I do not want tributes. What I want is a theatre museum, and it looks tonight as though we are not going to get one. I have had the tributes, but of what use are they to the reputation of this country about this museum?

This is quite important. It is not a slight thing. As my noble friend has said, contributions had been made to this theatre museum on the understanding that they would be displayed, and displayed properly in a museum built for the purpose. It is a breach of faith—and this is not a term used by me, it is a term used on the other side of the House.

There can be little doubt about that, because, as recently as 18th October last, the then Minister for the Arts said: I announced on 11th August"— that was after our debate of last year— the Government's conclusion that the proposed theatre museum project in the old flower market in London's Covent Garden should go ahead". He added: I am grateful to the honourable Member"— a Member who had intervened— for his kind remarks, and I assure him that we are determined that the project shall go ahead". There could not have been anything more certain, more straightforward, more positive. So we all thought that Rayner had been rejected and the museum was established. This news, as the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, has said, has come as a very great shock. There is still hope that this might not occur.

The director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Roy Strong, expressed himself trenchantly according to the Standard. He said that the future of the theatre museum had reached the make or break stage. He said: We cannot go on like this. Unless there is a specific pledge to make the money available I will go to my board of trustees and recommend that everything that has been collected for the Theatre Museum should be retumed to its owners. We are acting under false pretences if we retain artefacts that have been given to the nation and do not place them on display". That statement was made by Sir Roy Strong today and it contrasts with a statement he has alleged to have made yesterday when he appeared in the first instance almost to accept the decision which had been made. It is clear that having thought it over Sir Roy does not accept this decision. He is not alone in that. Mr. Shouvaloff, the director of the theatre museum under Sir Roy, is quite unwilling to accept this decision.

As a Minister I personally welcomed the objections which were raised from time to time when any doubt was cast upon the future of the theatre museum, just as the right honourable gentleman, Mr. Channon, welcomed our debate here last year. I hope that the present Minister is welcoming this debate as a means of reminding the Prime Minister that the loss of the theatre museum is one of those candle-end economies she promised not to inflict upon us. If the Minister does not change his mind he will make a very poor start. No matter with what good intentions he paves his path, he will finish in obloquy. I am sure that the Minister does not want that, but I warn him that if the theatre museum is not to go ahead—if this is not merely a postponement—if the Minister is unable to give us an assurance that the theatre museum will go ahead at a stated time within the immediate future, then the statements we have heard here tonight are not the end of the rumpus but only the beginning.

7.34 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I intend to make a rather brief response to the debate. This is precisely because the subject is such an important one, because the issues are so clear and because I do not want to be accused of any obfuscation whatsoever of them. Praise has been bestowed on the concept of the national theatre museum and on the many individuals who have expended time, money and energy on bringing it to fruition. I am glad to endorse what has been said and to praise all concerned most warmly. I fully understand the disappointment and anxiety occasioned by my decision not to authorise signature last Thursday of the lease with the GLC for the Covent Garden building. As a resident of Covent Garden, as well as a Minister, I share in the disappointment and I very well understand the anxiety.

I am glad to be able to say that there is no change of policy over the theatre museum. This project has been endorsed by the Government and we very much hope to see its realisation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Birkett, I hope that my speech is a hiccup rather than an elegy. I could not allow the signing of the lease for a very simple reason. The very simple reason was that signature would have committed me to nearly £1 million of spending in this financial year.

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, who questioned me about the technicalities of this, that the lease agreement alone could not have been signed last Thursday as an act of commitment and good faith because it contained a stipulation which was put in at the GLC's request on the timetable of building work. Therefore, the building contracts became operative more or less simultaneously. The signing was due to take place, not as the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, suggested, on Friday, but on Thursday at the very moment that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was announcing his plans for correcting a substantial threatended overspend on the public accounts. The Chancellor has to live within his means and, therefore, so do I. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, that I am quite determined, during my tenure of office as Arts Minister, to give no false signals to the world of the arts, about which we all care so much. The world of the arts has its fate intimately wound up with the overall improvement of the economy, to which, as an Administration, we are committed.

It would have been quite inequitable to the many other calls on my budget for the arts and museums if I had, by authorising signature of the lease, effectively pre-empted any reduction whatsoever on the theatre museum in this fiscal year. Protection of the theatre museum would have had to be paid for, so to speak, by other arts bodies, and the House will appreciate that much of my programme has already been committed in financial terms. It seemed to me better to defer this project—thoroughly worthy though I believe it to be—while I looked closely at all those projects which were already under way. I needed time to look at my budget in general and to discover where my own contribution to the correctiion of the overspend could most equitably and reasonably be made.

Due to the coincidence of the signing of the lease with the Chancellor's statement, it was only fair to all my clients as Arts Minister that I should have time to weigh up all the corrections that might have to be made. I acknowledge that that was not the fault of the many admirable people concerned with the theatre museum or of the GLC; but nor was it my right honourable friend's fault or mine. It is never convenient to lose money or to discover that one does not have the money that one thought one had or to be faced with the predictable, damaging reaction of one's creditors, if one fails to cut one's clothes according to one's cloth. I say to my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood—I was extremely impressed by the eloquence of her speech and agreed with nearly everything she said—that no distinction, unfortunately, is made by money markets between spending for investment and spending for current liabilities. The money always costs the same amount.

Government spending is based not on need but on the resources which are available to fulfil needs. In an era of nil or low rates of growth, these resources are threatened by an excess of borrowing or taxation over planned limits. So too is economic recovery with all its implications for greater growth and a greater pool or resources. I can assure the House that on behalf of the arts and on behalf of the theatre museum itself I am as anxious as anyone that the pool should grow bigger and that I should be able to draw from it. But the House will appreciate that I cannot reasonably expect the arts and libraries programe overall to be exempted from their contribution to reducting the risk of there having to be increased borrowing or taxation, neither of which would do any good to the arts or to their patrons.

I appreciate that people outside the House as well as inside it want to know where they stand on this project. I should like to make it clear by repeating that Government policy towards the theatre museum remains unchanged. It is my intention that the project should go ahead on the basis to have been agreed last Thursday, provided that the resources allowed it are available, without excessive damage to the continuing commitments elsewhere. When the project starts depends upon the outcome of the 1983–84 cash limit reductions now under detailed consideration and on whether my expenditure programme for future years remains broadly at its currently planned level and does not have to accommodate substantial new burdens.

Meanwhile it is only prudent to assume that the theatre museum project will not now be able to start before the end of the fiscal year 1983–84; that is to say, before 1st April next year. Let me repeat that I need no convincing regarding the value of this project. There has not been a change of policy. There is unfortunately at the present time a change in the resources available to put that policy into effect.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down—and we are grateful to him for what he has said; although it is disappointing but it might have been worse—would he please answer my question about the lease? Is he going to ensure that the building is not lost?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I said in my statement that there is no change of policy on the basis which was agreed last Thursday. I rest on that.