West End revamp threatened by ACE/HLF Lottery doubts

Jeremy Austin
,

Uncertainty over the future of Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund as distributors of National Lottery cash is undermining the culture department’s apparent commitment to find a solution to the West End theatre owners’ call for help in their £250 million refurbishment of the capital’s venues.

Representatives of the government and of the main funding bodies for the arts have this week given evidence to the select committee for culture, media and sport’s inquiry into the development of the arts industry. They have said that there is a willingness to answer the call for the provision of public cash for the West End’s commercial theatres.

However, ACE and the HLF, both of which would be expected to provide a significant proportion of the funds, have said they cannot commit any amount of cash until the government has announced whether or not they will still be Lottery distributors after 2006.

Addressing the select committee, Heritage Lottery Fund director Carole Souter said the organisation had been in talks with the Society of London Theatre and with the Theatres Trust regarding their joint Act Now! report and the subsequent call of a £250 million capital cash injection over the next 15 years – half of which could come from the public sector including the HLF, ACE and the London Development Agency.

However, she said: “I do not want to sound hesitant but equally I do not want to suggest that as of tomorrow there will be a signed cheque because we are not at that point. There is an awful lot of work to do to be clear about the mechanics of how these would work.”

While Souter said that the HLF trustees still had issues with providing public funds to commercial operations, ACE chairman Christopher Frayling said there had been a long history of ACE working with the private sector and that many commercial West End productions had started in subsidised theatres. He too stressed that while there were issues about accessibility both on and off stage and about the heritage aspects of refurbishment, the over-riding concern was the body’s future cash flow after 2006.

“There is no question of making commitments – forget about £125million – of any kind until we have some sort of guidance on that because we simply do not have the money. It is the wrong moment, in a sense, to be talking about it,” he said.

Select committee members Chris Bryant and Frank Doran expressed concern that discussions were not as far advanced as the DCMS had led them to believe.

Representing the DCMS, Estelle Morris said that while she could not give an answer on the day about the future of the Lottery distributors, she may be able to ‘drop a note’ before it completed its deliberations but was bound by the government’s timetable for the announcement.

Commenting on the report compiled by the Theatres Trust and SOLT she added that the government had recognised it had to act or face jeopardising the future of West End theatre and had called the various parties together to see if a solution could be found.

“I think you are aware that what has happened, at the moment, is that the theatre owners have agreed to put some money in and they will submit applications to Lottery distributors in the same way that they normally would.

“I do not know what will happen there – I have had conversations with both ACE and the HLF about this but I have not had conversations about the detailed applications,” she said.

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