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Southbank delays Festival Wing plans after mayor Boris punches hole in funding model

- 5 February 2014

Following recent comments by London mayor Boris Johnson, who holds final sway over planning decisions in the capital, the Southbank Centre has decided to withhold the planning application for its Festival Wing redevelopment and will now embark on a final search for funding models to keep the scheme alive.

An artist's impression of the Festival Wing plans Picture: Miller Hare

An artist’s impression of the Festival Wing plans
Picture: Miller Hare

Since the plans were announced in March 2013, Southbank management have insisted that the scheme’s viability depended on developing the undercroft of the Queen Elizabeth Hall for commercial purposes, to contribute to an overall cost of around £120m. Having been for years used as an improvised skatepark, this area has become the most high-profile sticking point for the plans, with the ‘Long Live Southbank’ campaign contributing to large numbers of objections to the planning application.

In January, Johnson told a preliminary planning meeting that, while he ‘wholeheartedly’ supported the plans: ‘Redevelopment should not be at the detriment of the skatepark, which should be retained in its current position … The skatepark is the epicentre of UK skateboarding and is part of the cultural fabric of London.’

At the time, Southbank management described this statement as ‘unexpected’, calling on Johnson to present plans ‘to fill the financial gap that now stands between us and our ability to provide free art and culture to millions of Londoners’, but admitted that the Southbank’s board ‘must consider the implications for the future of the project if he fails to do so’.

A Southbank Centre spokesperson said today: ‘We are withholding the application for three months in order to search for a funding solution for the project that will keep alive our ambition to provide free art and culture for millions each year.’

The future of the scheme now depends on a final, three-month search for funding for a project which the Southbank says will not attract private support.

The management’s hopes may now lie with the public sector, with commercial ambitions dashed and raising funds from trusts or the private sector apparently not an option: ‘The aspiration is to find concrete and practical alternative ideas for funding the public realm works that comprise an unusually high proportion of the Festival Wing project but will not attract funding from the philanthropic or sponsorship community.’

Indications are that this is indeed a last-ditch effort. As Southbank chairman Rick Haythornthwaite says in today’s statement: ‘The case for closing the project down right now is compelling’.

www.thefestivalwing.co.uk

Full statement:

STATEMENT FROM SOUTHBANK CENTRE BOARD
SOUTHBANK CENTRE WITHHOLDS FESTIVAL WING IN FINAL SEARCH FOR ALTERNATIVE FUNDING MODEL

Southbank Centre’s Board will withhold its planning application for the Festival Wing, following Mayor Boris Johnson’s statement (15 January 2014) that the skate park should be retained in its current position in any redevelopment. The Board will now undertake a final search for an alternative funding model to keep the widely supported Festival Wing redevelopment scheme alive, along with the promise of free art and culture for millions each year.

The Mayor has the final say in the planning process and the scheme is therefore unlikely to gain planning permission without the retention of the skate park. The Mayor made clear that he supports the overall ambition of the Festival Wing scheme and understands the funding challenges faced by Southbank Centre.

The Festival Wing project would deliver major benefits, including full refurbishment of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, which are in desperate need of repair. It would provide free art and culture for two million people each year, including educational opportunities for 150,000 young people, while creating nearly 700 new jobs. It would include important new art spaces for musicians and artists.

Southbank Centre has consistently said that – even with no new buildings – the refurbishment of the 1960s buildings would require new commercial income. It planned to achieve this in large part by moving the skateboarders 120 metres along the riverside to a bigger, better space to make way for new restaurants. This model of commercial partnership proved successful with the redevelopment of Royal Festival Hall, transforming the South Bank for all to enjoy.

It is far from clear how the scheme might now proceed without exposing Southbank Centre to unacceptable levels of financial risk but it has committed to a final three month search with all parties, including the Mayor’s Office, Lambeth Council and the skateboarders. The aspiration is to find concrete and practical alternative ideas for funding the public realm works that comprise an unusually high proportion of the Festival Wing project but will not attract funding from the philanthropic or sponsorship community.

Rick Haythornthwaite, Chairman of Southbank Centre, said:

“This is a big setback to a scheme which would serve millions if completed. The case for closing the project down right now is compelling but we feel we owe a last ditch revival attempt to the many people that have supported us over the past four years of planning, not least the Arts Council England. Boris Johnson and Lambeth Council have both made clear that they wish to see the scheme proceed and we look forward to hearing their ideas.

“But we are under no illusions. We have been handed a massive challenge and we don’t yet see how we will make it work – it is not as if we haven’t already explored numerous options. Our battle has never been with the skateboarders, whom we have welcomed and guaranteed a future on our site. The battle has always been against the economics of bringing a set of crumbling and inefficient buildings into the 21st century, in the context of declining public funding.

“If we are to have any chance of finding new answers then we need, over the next three months, the help of everyone with an interest in putting the final touches to a world class South Bank cultural quarter. If we all fail to find a solution, the buildings problems do not go away. But the needs of the new people attracted by our success over recent years would have to wait to be met until a yet more radical solution to this hitherto intractable problem emerges.”

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