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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why does the Southbank need another £16.5 million?

By Norman Lebrecht / May 23, 2008

Tell me - I ask Michael Lynch, outgoing chief executive of the South Bank Centre - why your £16.5 million bailout is not a major public scandal?

Lynch, an agreeable Australian, does not usually flinch from direct questions but there are points in our conversation where a prefatory stutter betrays his unease, and an aide has to call back later to correct one of his statistics.

vLynch, in June 2007, triumphantly brought in the restoration of the 1951 Festival of Britain site ‘on time and on budget’. The Royal Festival Hall reopened with better acoustics and user facilities, and the new bars and eateries on its ground-level concourse drew a heavy flow of passing trade.

Rental from these busy shops reduced the need for public funding from 60 percent of the Centre’s budget to 47, and intensive programming has kept excitement levels high. Ride a bus across Waterloo Bridge any night of the week and you cannot fail to notice the contrast between a surging South Bank on one side and a sedate National Theatre on the other.

Much of this could be credited to Lynch, who joined in 2002, and his ex-chairman, Lord Hollick, a Blair crony who has since made way for a Brown-friendly financier, Rick Haythornthwaite. All seemed hunky-dory on the South Bank as next season’s plans were confidently announced last month. But soon after, in a press statement, it was announced that Arts Council England had agreed ‘an additional package of £16.5 million … to cover the final costs of the renovation.’

So the South Bank wasn’t on budget, after all, and there is no guarantee it won’t be coming back for more. In what way, I ask Lynch, is this not a scandal?

‘We had been talked to the Arts Council for two years about a top-up,’ he concedes. ‘The tricky issue was the final cost of the building. We negotiated a settlement to get rid of the builders’ claims. That put us 6.5 percent over budget – about £7.2 million.’

£7.2m is a big red smudge on a £110 million bill, even if much of it is due to the asbestos that was found – surprise, surprise - in the cladding of a building designed in the post-War asbestos heyday. That, however, turned out to be one of the lesser oversights.

The second chunk in the ACE package, £4.2m, is ‘a contribution to operating costs over three years’. What does that mean? ‘We have a third more public space,’ explains Lynch. ‘The hall is now air-conditioned and energy costs are going up. There are 65 percent more visitors to the site – 18 million walking past in a year – which requires more waste clearance, more water. We hadn’t planned for that.’

Hang on a minute: you spend a hundred million pounds and you don’t expect more people to turn up and breathe cooled air? ‘Not that many,’ says Lynch unhappily.

The third tranche of ACE cash, £5m, is ‘a three-year investment in the development of programming’. Explain that, please. ‘It’s for things like Messiaen and Stockhausen and the literary festival that we’re putting on.’ But the BBC are doing Messiaen, Stockhausen and a literary festival in the Proms without an extra penny on the bill, I protest. Lynch mutters something about the money enabling the South Bank ‘to do more events for free.’

You have to appreciate how carefully money is husbanded in arts companies to understand the magnitude of a £16.5 million shortfall. It is a gap that sticks in the mind as one where the Arts Council once threatened to shut down English National Opera. It is two years’ worth of public subsidy for all the London orchestras put together. It is one hundred times the amount the ACE slashed from the London Mozart Players this year, threatening their survival. It is a sum beyond the computation of anyone in the arts outside five big beasts – two opera companies, two national theatres and the South Bank, the last of which enjoys a special relationship with ACE and New Labour. When I ask Lynch if his new chairman had made the extra cash a condition of accession, he says tightly: ‘I can’t get into that.’

The real causes, he insists, were an early failure to seek more National Lottery money and a disinterest on the part of corporate London to invest in artistic success. The Lincoln Center recently thanked hundreds of corporate partners in a New York Times advertisement for helping its refurbishment. The South Bank had 40. ‘That’s the biggest disappointment for me,’ says Lynch, who has agreed his departure date for next April. His personal remuneration for the massive task has been relatively modest: he earns £100,000 less a year than the ROH boss Tony Hall.

Were it not for the £16.5m black hole, Lynch could have flown home to Sydney with a cheery wave and the satisfaction of a tough job well done. But the return of the begging-bowl puts the South Bank back to where it was before he arrived, a special Labour Party protectorate with a £14m payroll and a taste for living beyond its means.

‘Without the new money,’ reflects Lynch, ‘we’d have to cut back what we do, denude the experience for visitors, eliminate education programmes.’ Nobody wants that, I assure him.

‘I absolutely disagree that there is anything scandalous about it,’ declares Lynch with sudden vehemence. ‘We created a great hall. We have demonstrated success. We have never gone to Government before to be bailed out. This is going to be a fabulous place for 25 years. The money puts us in a better position to do what we set out to do.’

I hope he’s right, but the rescue deal cuts deep into the credibility of Britain’s biggest arts centre and the transparency of its governance. After this fiasco, few will trust the South Bank to stand for long on its own two feet in a steadily worsening economy. What time’s the next shortfall?

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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