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Francis: A future for the National Eisteddfod

Speech to the Conservative Policy Forum in Llandudno

"When I was a small child growing up in the village of Dinas Mawddwy in South Meirionnydd, every Saturday night, the roadhouse hotel owned by my parents would be packed to the rafters for a traditional sing-song.

Saturday night was organ night (perhaps I should rephrase that!), and the farming community who represented our mainstay customers provided the entertainment.

Farmers of course keep irregular hours, and as a result, so did our hotel bar. I think then that this must have been my earliest memory of being exposed to Welsh culture. I remember lying in my bed at night listening to the heavenly singing three floors below me.

So profound was the volume, that I recall that the furniture in my room would reverberate and 'hum along to the music'. The atmospherics were so electric that at times, I remember thinking that the roof of the building was come clean off.

These evenings saw the whole gamut of musical entertainment : solos, duets, unaccompanied singing and 'penillion'.

The repertoire would consist of an eclectic mix : the popular Welsh songs of the day, 'Hogiau'r Wyddfa' and 'Tony ac Aloma', usually followed by great rousing hymns, 'I bob un sy'n fyddlon'.

'Mae d'eisiau', that old funeral favourite would be used to finish things off and you could guarantee that there wouldn't be a dry eye in the house

The singing was remarkable. Bases, tenors, sopranos and altos would know instinctively how to sing in harmony, and on a Saturday night, tourists from neighbouring hotels and caravan sites would flock to our place.

I kid you not, the quality and the array of talent which became synonymous with the saloon bar of the Buckley Arms, Dinas Mawddwy would not have been out of place at 'La Scala, Milan' or 'the New York Met'.

I would say that this rare and beautiful thing in my little community was undoubtedly cultivated by the whole ethos of the Eisteddfod.

We all grew up with Eisteddfodau. Firstly, the Eisteddfod y Cylch, followed by the Urdd and then the National. In the village primary school which I attended, between the months of March and until the end of the summer term, most schoolday afternoons were filled with practising for various Eisteddfodau.

Forgive me for this huge digression and from committing the great Welsh sin of sentimentality. Now for some facts. The National Eisteddfod is Wales' number one event. Its iconic value is immense, not just because of what it does to preserve our language and culture, also because there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Now as many of you will already know from yesterday's banner headline in the 'Daily Post', the festival is under threat. We as Welsh Conservatives must not allow it to die.

The Labour AM for Conwy recently said on the radio that she thought the Eisteddfod would go on forever - well not without proper financial help it won't is the stark truth.

The Eisteddfod's reserve assets, mainly in stocks and shares, have fallen this year to around £ 250 k leaving the festival on the brink of disaster.

Why is Wales' biggest festival under threat ?

The current financial crisis stems from the Welsh Language Board's decision to cut its annual grant to the Eisteddfod central office by £ 100 k in 1997.

In recent years, the event has been affected by the impact of Foot and Mouth Disease, poor weather and the fact that the event moves between North and South Wales annually.

For some time there has also been a general consensus by many eisteddfodwyr that the organisation needs a '50,000 mile service'. The festival has encountered problems attracting a wider audience. Consultations and previous market research have shown that even a good number of Welsh speakers have turned their backs on the Eisteddfod due to a lack of innovation and change in a product which they have been familiar with for many years.

There is however considerable scope to attract them back and this year's Eisteddfod at Newport was testament to how the organisers of the event made a step change and turned things around. There were many improvements.

Part of the problem is that the Eisteddfod is still viewed by many who have not visited for years as essentially a Welsh middle class event.

The specially commissioned Stevens Report which looked at the Eisteddfod in depth and which came out last year said: 'The Eisteddfod must become more reflective of a festival celebrating the rich, diverse culture of Wales in a way that bridges tradition with modern expression and creativity'.

The report goes on: 'The key is to attract greater visitor numbers which must occur in order to counterbalance the fact that costs have been growing at a faster rate than income - a position accentuated since 2000'.

The key to the attraction of greater numbers has to be selection of the site, its layout and its marketing. The weather however, is something we cannot rely upon and this will always be a major influence on demand.

The report calls for: 'More indoor events with pre-booked or advanced sales of tickets and the creation of more weatherproof space over large areas of the site'. What about the tradition of the Welsh language only rule ?

Does that put the mockers on the Eisteddfod's ability to attract a larger audience? After all, Wales is a country of two languages and only 20% speak Welsh.

I believe that the truth is that the Welsh language only becomes an issue at the festival when there is inadequate information, access and things to do for non Welsh speakers.

All in all, what people have said that they want is an Eisteddfod which represents value for money and a festival atmosphere. This year, after accepting the recommendations of the Stevens Report, the Eisteddfod addressed many of the problems. They improved and upgraded facilities and gave us a festival at Newport which had a vibrant, carnival atmosphere.

People at Tredegar Park remarked on the warm welcome of stewards who managed to find you before you actually had any opportunity to get lost. Very proactive.

The signage was better than ever and there was more live entertainment going on at the various different corners of the Maes - from poetry readings to belly dancing.

The food was more varied and the toilets were cleaned more often. And of course, for the first time, it was possible to enjoy a glass of wine or a cold beer on the Maes.

If the Eisteddfod managed to turn things around in a mere nine months, with regular and appropriate funding, then they could really be cooking with gas. Festival organisers have accepted and understood that for the Eisteddfod now, the non-change option is simply not an option.

Last Saturday, the Welsh Language Board released £40,000 to help the Eisteddfod, but in order to survive, the festival needs to find savings of around £200,000 per annum.

The Welsh Conservative Group in the Assembly have called upon the Welsh Labour Government to give one-off payment of £ 100 k this year to help the Eisteddfod alleviate its funding crisis.

We recommend this to be followed by a £ 400 k annual grant (over 5 years) which should be subject to an appropriate business plan with the Eisteddfod organisers. This is what we would do if we were in Government.

Since the 1980s Welsh Conservatives have always recognised the importance of funding Wales' premier cultural festival. In fact, the day that we do not, is the day when we will not be fit to call ourselves Welsh Conservatives.

So, if location, location location is everything.

To move, or not to move? Is that the question!

Doesn't the peripatetic nature of the Eisteddfod (the fact that it moves between north and south Wales each year) immediately bump up its running costs?

Is this moving around the most effective method to deliver the Eisteddfod in financial terms?Accountants Grant Thornton made an assessment of this in 1996 and said that the pluses of the festival's peripatetic nature were as follows:

'Local host communities are able to take ownership of the event. Non Welsh speaking areas could be included'.

New visitors are attracted and moving around ensures a spread of economic benefit to the whole of Wales. But that was in 1996 and since then, costs have increased. The Eisteddfod now costs a million more to run than it did eight years ago.

53% of this increase is related to site cost increases, including Health and Safety regulation which amounts to an approximate£ 450 K depending on where the event is held.

Where site related artistic and site costs are aggregated, then the cost attributed goes up to £600,000 (representing a 70% increase in costs).

The Stevens Report acknowledged that the saving which a single permanent site could possibly save could be around £ 500 k per annum on this basis.

However, there is a very big risk that a single site would mean the loss of interest of local communities and that the Eisteddfod could lose its unique "Heineken" effect: which is to say, it would fail to reach the parts it had hitherto always reached.

In so far as the moving around is concerned, do the cultural objectives supersede the financial ones?

Well, at the moment they do, but if there is no real increase in income, the problem remains of how the festival secures long-term sustainable stability. Welsh Conservatives have suggested that the Eisteddfod might consider exploring the concept of four alternating sites - one in each corner of Wales, as a kind of compromise.

However, let me make this clear; contrary to the Daily Post feature earlier this week, we are not insisting that this is the only way forward. The way forward is a matter for the Eisteddfod Council.

The Eisteddfod is a unique celebration of Wales and its culture. It protects and promotes a wonderful and ancient language which underpins that culture.

It uncovers and nurtures talent that spreads the Welsh message worldwide. People like Bryn Terfel and Sian Cothi to name but a few.

It is integral to cultural tourism in Wales which has a huge role to play in our country's wealth and prosperity.

The Eisteddfod belongs to all of us and we must not let it die. I am minded to think of the words of the Hogiau'r Wyddfa song whose stains I used to listen to as a little girl on a Saturday night when my community held its own weekly mini Eisteddfod in the back bar of a pub in Dinas Mawddwy:

'O Mon i Mynwy…….o'r gopa'r Wyddfa i lawr i'r thraethau ... mae wlad hon yn eidda ti a fi"

'From Ynys Mon to Monmouth ….from Snowdon's summit down as far as all the beaches ... this land belongs to you and me'

Let me take this a bit further. This language is your language, even if you don't speak it. This Eisteddfod is your Eisteddfod ... the all-Wales AGM.

Let's continue to enjoy it. Let's see it flourish and thrive. Let's help this special and unique festival to go on forever. Diolch yn fawr am gwrando."

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