Tory Bob Neill leads passionate Commons debate about funding cuts to English National Opera

Tory Bob Neill leads passionate Commons debate about funding cuts to English National Opera

London MPs, with support from outside the capital, are continuing their fight against November’s decision by Arts Council England (ACE) to remove all funding from the English National Opera (ENO) unless it moves elsewhere in the country.

With a petition calling for a rethink now backed by more than 80,000 signatories, a partial reprieve for the St Martin’s Lane institution, almost 100 years old, was announced by (ACE) this week, just ahead of a Commons debate about the cut led by Bromley & Chislehurst MP Bob Neill.

The ENO grant was axed as part of the overall 2023 to 2026 arts funding decision in line with a government instruction to shift cash away from London. Just £17 million was offered over a three year period if the company relocated, with Manchester the suggested new home.

But on Tuesday ACE backtracked and allocated almost £12 million to ENO for 2023/24, allowing it to maintain the bulk of its current programme and step back from announcing redundancies, though the reprieve came too late to save a planned Wagner collaboration with New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Despite the U-turn, the Commons debate will not have been easy listening for either the government or ACE, with MPs packing Parliament’s Westminster Hall meeting room to challenge the cut.

Opening the debate, Neill welcomed the new funding announcement but said that more action was needed. Axing support for ENO in London had been a “woeful and destructive action” he said, describing ACE as lacking in strategy, transparency and accountability.

Wider cuts to Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne as well as the ENO had already seen touring programmes axed, meaning “23,000 fewer people will have the chance to see high-quality opera than before – a funny type of levelling up,” he went on.

ACE’s argument that audiences for large-scale opera were dwindling had “no robust statistical basis”, he claimed. Its suggestion that “cut-down” opera was the way forward would “short-change” the people of England.

And the proposal to move the ENO to Manchester suggested a “lack of basic competence”, he said, given that the suggested new base for the company, the Factory, had apparently not been built to accommodate unamplified singing.

“Something has gone badly wrong with this funding round, and government must intervene to put it right. This is not something ministers should allow to stand,” Neill concluded.

The debate saw Westminster’s two longest-serving male and female MPs, the Conservative Peter Bottomley and Harriet Harman, who represents Camberwell & Peckham for Labour, joining forces to condemn the cuts, with Harman arguing they would “actually make opera more exclusive and elitist rather than less”.

Former Tory arts and culture ministers Caroline Dinenage and Damian Collins stepped up too – not to support funding decisions which Dinenage, MP for Gosport, described as “bizarre and ill-judged” but to call for government to do more. “We don’t level up the rest of the country by levelling down London. We can’t do it by destroying some of the great cultural institutions that do so much,” said Dinenage.

“It can’t be right,” added Collins, MP for Folkestone, “to take a major institution like the ENO and with very little notice pull the rug out from underneath it. At the end of this sorry saga we need to get to a position where the ENO can actually plan for the future with a fair funding settlement.”

Sports and tourism minister Stuart Andrew, replying to the debate, acknowledged members’ concerns. “I recognise today in this debate that there have been very strong representations made, which I will be bringing to the attention of the arts minister,” he said.

The overall position remains uncertain. The latest decision seemingly leaves the door open for full funding in the future, but still conditional on ENO moving to a new model “where it can deliver an innovative opera programme from a base outside London” from 2026.

But the company should also keep its London home, according to the joint ACE and ENO statement. “We want to back an exciting programme of work from the ENO in a new home, and make sure it stays part of the brilliant London arts offer, at the Coliseum,” said ACE chief executive Darren Henley.

ENO’s current Coliseum season continues with Bizet’s Carmen, running from 1-24 February with tickets from £10. Photograph from ENO website.

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