Regional theatre beats the West End

No sooner had the curtain gone up on the new year's debates in Westminster Hall than Will Quince seized the day to make an impassioned plea for support for our regional theatres.

He argued that you can only have a vibrant West End if you've got a strong regional base developing the talent and he sees no reason why so much more arts funding goes into London per head of population than it does to the regions.

The MP for Colchester argued: "The West End is often the showcase of our best theatre, but it does not exist in a vacuum; it exists because it is fed and sustained by the talent of regional theatres across the country."

As ever, the nub of the argument was money. "Much of our regional theatre is not self-financing," Mr Quince said. "It relies on subsidies from the Arts Council and local government to ensure its year-to-year viability. In Colchester, the Mercury theatre's income is 30% grant income, with the other 70% earned."

Mr Quince argued every pound spent on the Mercury theatre made £3 for the local economy.

He was well-supported by MPs who praised the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth, the Buxton Opera House and the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds.

The MP for Bury St Edmunds, Jo Churchill, outlined the community value of local theatres: "I have in my constituency the only example of a regency playhouse in the country. We have the historic value of the building - it is 87% self-funded and, as it reaches out, it is very hard to put a price on its social value.

"We reach out to Women's Aid and work with them. We reach out to children with physical and mental disabilities and to Suffolk Age Concern. We also work with the YMCA, and young people who are homeless and without work have come to work in the theatre. Does my honourable friend agree that a price cannot be put on that?

London versus the regions

Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, replied for the government, arguing that changes in funding were moving in the right direction.

"There is a lively debate about the amount of funding that goes into London and to other areas outside London," he said.

"It is important to say that when we came into office around 60% of lottery funding went outside London. That has now risen to 70%, and the Arts Council has an ambition to go further to reach 75% by the end of 2018.

"It is also following the same strategy with its national portfolio organisations. In 2012, 49% of funding went to London and 51% went outside London. By 2015, that had changed to 45% in London and 55% outside London."

The minister welcomed the debate and agreed in principle that regional theatres deserve every penny they get but made no promises that any more money would be forthcoming.

The member for Colchester, who treated BBC Essex listeners to a burst of Les Miserables following the debate, said he would continue to campaign for theatre but promised he had no plans to tread the boards anytime soon.

"They do say that politics is showbusiness for ugly people," he concluded. A thought perhaps better not shared with his colleagues.

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