This has been a really exciting week for Paul Brannen MEP and me, as our team in Brussels joined us in Newcastle for 'Constituency Week'. With the help of two electric LEAF cars kindly lent to us by Nissan we travelled all over the region to meet with local groups and businesses, giving our European office the chance to see the impact of our work in the North East.
No visit to the North East is complete without a trip to Beamish Museum, so on Wednesday (18th February 2015) I took half the team on a trip to get a sense of the history of the region and meet with the museum's Director Richard Evans to talk about its future. It was here that we learnt how changes the Government have made to local plans to spend European Funds may put their future plans at risk.
Beamish is a great example how communities benefit from having a great cultural venue on their doorstep. The largest open air museum of its kind in the UK, Beamish has become a source of local pride: 650,000 people visit every year for a uniquely immersive experience of the region's past and to see how social and industrial changes have transformed the landscape and society.
What really came out of Wednesday's meeting was the huge effort being made by a team invested in providing a well-needed economic boost to a region hit hard by Government austerity, and which is currently suffering from the highest levels of youth unemployment in the country.
Beamish Museum is playing a key role in building 'A Case for Culture': an ambitious initiative developed by the North East Cultural Partnership (NECP) to develop the region's cultural capital over the next 15 years. Beamish will oversee a process of consultation, in which organisations, universities and businesses from across the region will contribute their ideas on how to build a truly distinctive vision for culture in the North East.
Beamish itself is a top local employer and offers a wide range of traineeships and apprenticeships, from marketing and business administration to the more specialised areas of mercenary and steam engineering. Its volunteering opportunities provide important job progression pathways for local people, including those with learning disabilities, who traditionally find it difficult to get on the career ladder.
But its ambitious plans to expand the famous Living Museum show a desire to be much more ambitious about job creation, tourism and visitor experience. The plans will provide 95 new permanent jobs and 50 apprenticeship opportunities, and could bring in a further 100,000 more visitors to the North East. A new replica 1950s town and farm will provide a therapeutic centre for sufferers of dementia.
In order to carry out its 12-year plan, Beamish needs £17 million of extra funding. The museum has already received initial support for a £10.75 million grant from Heritage Lottery Fund. But the museum is dependent on EU funding, in the form of the European Regional Development Fund, for the rest. Indeed, it's EU funds that have been instrumental in growing the museum into the cultural centre it is today.
This is a project with a social conscience. It is a unique selling point for the North East, whose clear benefit to the region could bring in even more investment and encourage further redevelopment of the area. Yet the museum's future is under serious threat from a Coalition government that is putting the culture and arts sector at risk up and down the country.
The allocation of EU funds, worth a huge £724 million to projects in the North East between 2014-20, is carried out by the region's Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). The LEP's regional strategy originally included our not-for-profit cultural and tourism industries, such as Beamish Museum, as potential beneficiaries of this vital European funding. However it has emerged that these industries have now been removed from the list, which favours exclusively profit-led enterprises.
This is a brutal blow to our social enterprises and cultural institutions, and ignores the benefits to an area and opportunities for its residents that a social outlook can bring. It further ignores the value of the democratic process involved in forming the LEP strategy, which was agreed following a wide process of consultation with local stakeholders.
Worryingly, the exclusion of Beamish from potential EU funds reflects a UK-wide approach to culture under this Government, for whom the value created by culture depends on profit-margins. England's Operational Programme, which will set the tone for how the European Regional Development Fund will be allocated across the country, is due to be provisionally signed off in the next couple of weeks.
It's our role as Labour MEPs to give a voice to the local cultural institutions at risk of being chopped out of funding opportunities, and ensure that the communities and citizens that stand to benefit from their continuation are not left behind.
Jude Kirton-Darling is Labour MEP for North East of England