Lottery funds `to cut prices at theatre'

Bid to defuse charges of `elitist' spending
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Money from the National Lottery could soon be used to cut seat prices in theatres, opera houses and concert venues, the Independent has learnt.

The idea is being urgently considered by the Arts Council, a distributing body for lottery funds. It has been stung by criticism that it has given millions of pounds to venues that charge high prices and do not appeal to mass audiences.

Last month, the Arts Council gave pounds 55m towards the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House, which has average tickets prices of over pounds 50 and has charged pounds 267 for a seat.

Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, is understood to be championing the cause of using lottery funds to keep ticket prices down. He has had private talks with senior colleagues and more than one meeting with Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, to discuss the future direction of the lottery.

After its last meeting officially closed, the Arts Council spent lunch discussing how lottery money could go to projects with mass appeal.

By law, lottery money can only go to capital projects in the arts, such as new buildings or renovations. The Arts Council could press for new legislation so that money could go towards annual revenue funding, which would take in ticket prices. But it is loath to do this as it feels the Treasury might cut back on its annual grant to the arts, believing the arts were sufficiently looked after by the lottery.

Instead, the council hopes to exploit a loophole which allows lottery distributors to give money to endowment funds. It is thought endowment funds could be used to cut ticket prices. If this does not succeed, the council would be prepared to press for new legislation.

One senior Arts Council source said: "It is vital that action is taken quickly, and definitely by next year. The idea of lottery money is to make the arts more accessible, and one way is to make sure ticket prices are within the reach of the mass of the population."

The council is expected to put formal proposals on the change to Mrs Bottomley in the autumn. They are likely to say that when a grant is made, the council will be able to stipulate that part of the money is used to keep ticket prices at a certain level.

Concern about ticket prices stretches far beyond the Royal Opera House. Many theatres and concert venues are becoming unaffordable to young people. Adrian Noble, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, said he feels theatre prices should not go any higher. He admits it can now cost a family over pounds 100 to see a show at Stratford-upon-Avon.

The National Lottery has been strongly criticised for milking the poor to fund the hobbies of the rich. A report published last month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said the richest communities were benefiting far more than the poorest from awards of lottery money for arts, sport and heritage.

The study said John Major's pledge last September that the lottery revenue should lead to a "higher quality of life for millions of people, irrespective of income" was not being fulfilled.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund, which awards the grants, created controversy by its decisions to award pounds 3m to Eton College towards the building of a new sports complex, the granting of pounds 13.5m to the Churchill family for the sale of Winston Churchill's papers, and a pounds 55m grant to the Royal Opera House.

The Royal Opera House had applied to the Arts Council for pounds 78.5m to develop its Covent Garden site. The Opera House is particularly vulnerable to accusations of social elitism and the award drew fierce criticism from those who saw the money as subsidising a cultural pursuit that was too expensive for all but the very rich.

Keith Cooper, head of corporate affairs at the Royal Opera House, said he would welcome the idea of lottery money being used to reduce ticket prices provided it was not accompanied by a reduction in the annual Arts Council grant.

Mr Cooper has produced a plan under which any surplus money from the house's appeal fund for the redevelopment goes towards reducing ticket prices for certain productions. The appeal aims to match the amount of money which is given to the Royal Opera House by the lottery.