John Mann: Don’t let North’s coalfields become deserts of culture

Mark Rylance as Olivia, right, and Samuel Barnett as Viola in the Globe Theatre's all-male production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. (Picture: PA).
Mark Rylance as Olivia, right, and Samuel Barnett as Viola in the Globe Theatre's all-male production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. (Picture: PA).
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For the last ten years, I have repeatedly drawn Ministers’ attention to the deficit of culture spending in former mining communities. Yet when I stood up at Prime Minister’s Questions one month ago to highlight the issue once again, nothing had changed.

It remains the case, shockingly, that some London boroughs have received more funding from the Arts Council for England than entire regions of the UK.

Today, I have published my report into this grotesque inequality and held a debate in Parliament to force Ministers to respond. My research has shown that for every £8 spent by the Arts Council in London in the last decade, just £1 has been received by former mining communities.

Shockingly, for every £2 received by the London borough of Islington, an area with around 225,000 inhabitants, only £3 is received by the former English coalfields, which have a population in the millions.

Simply put, while Islington residents are falling over dance studios, orchestras and operas, people in Yorkshire and in the North Nottinghamshire constituency I now represent in Parliament must travel miles to get anything like the same quality of provision.

While there have been some welcome steps to correct this inequality in recent years, I have seen little evidence that it is consistent. Nor does it go far enough.

Though the Arts Council has begun to rebalance its portfolio away from London, funding is starting to cluster on large cities in other parts of England.

I am delighted that great cities like Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield are receiving more money. I am however disappointed that the share of Arts Council National Portfolio funding going to former mining communities has risen only slightly, from 4.1 per cent in 2015-18 to 4.8 per cent in 2018-22.

A lack of access to theatres, concerts and museums puts children in former mining communities at a severe disadvantage compared to their peers in London. This may seem superficial, but it can leave a real divide in cultural awareness and confidence that carries into adulthood.

Since 2006, I have organised a summer school for young people from my Bassetlaw constituency to visit London. I take them all over the city to raise their aspirations and show them what is out there, both for their careers and for their own enjoyment.

For the last few years, we have visited the Globe to see Shakespeare. Leaving the performance of Twelfth Night last year I was struck by how for many this would be their first time seeing Shakespeare rather than just reading it in the classroom, something I have heard participants say often. More shockingly still, for some, this is the first time they have been to 
the theatre.

In an era of austerity where school funding is squeezed, it is becoming harder and harder for schools to justify the high transport and admission costs of school trips to theatres and museums far away in London or other cities.

Not only are these costs high, but pressure on the curriculum and the teaching day make it harder for teachers to justify losing a day of class time to provide such opportunities.

Inside schools too, the rising costs of extra-curricular activities mean that school theatre is suffering. Many schools are either cutting their clubs or asking parents for contributions towards the cost of running them. The chance to act in great theatre at school should be an opportunity open to every child. We risk creating deserts of culture if we do not act now. While inequalities in funding for sport are nowhere near as bad, there is nothing like parity between the coalfields and London. Since 2009, for every £1 spent in the English coalfields, more than £4 was spent in London. This is over twice the amount that fair per capita funding by region would create.

Research published by Sheffield Hallam University in 2014 shows former mining communities suffering badly with poor health. In Yorkshire, for instance, 7.4 per cent report that their general health is bad or very bad, against 4.3 per cent in the South East.

Poor public health is bad for all of us, not just the individual who suffers. Higher rates of chronic illness, higher childhood obesity and poor lifelong fitness cost us all when it comes to paying for the NHS.

Today, I call on Ministers to take action and seize the opportunity of creating real, lasting impact in former mining communities.

The Arts Council and Sport England should reach out into communities to develop competitive bids to help community organisations, sports teams, schools and others to get the access to funding they need and deserve.

Where it is difficult to travel, these bodies should look at providing subsidies to facilities in nearby towns and cities, and waive entrance fees for those coming long distances.

Now is the time to put former mining communities at the forefront of Arts and Sports Funding. Our young people deserve fair opportunities wherever they grow up.

John Mann MP has been the Member of Parliament for Bassetlaw in North Nottinghamshire since 2001.

His full report on Arts and Sports funding ‘Culture in the Coalfields’ was published online today.