Norman Lebrecht

Privatisation is the best option for the South Bank Centre

The subsidy guzzler is the despair of the rest of British arts – which does not prevent a totally supine arts media from rushing to defend this glorified food-mall to their last free croissant

The Royal Festival Hall sounds little better than a municipal baths (© Graham Salter / Bridgeman Images)

I must have written about this subject 100 times in 30 years and I’m still having to restate the bloody obvious. London’s South Bank Centre, which has just gone bleating to the government for more money, is the biggest subsidy guzzler in the country and the despair of the rest of British arts.

The South Bank receives £19 million a year from the Arts Council, on top of the many millions that go to each of the so-called ‘resident ensembles’ that perform within it. What it does with the money is anyone’s guess because, as far as the eye can see and the nostrils can smell, the South Bank is now a fast-food mall with an occasional classical concert buried within it. How did it get so bad?

When Margaret Thatcher demolished the Greater London Council, two likely lads at 105 Piccadilly decided that the South Bank should become a sub-quango of the Arts Council and that one of them, Nicholas Snowman, should run it. A board was cobbled together of public worthies and two orchestras were invited to pitch for sole residency. In classic fashion, both got it.

Things went from bad to worse as, sensitive to the appalling acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall, contractors were appointed to give the whole site an overhaul. A man of vast Australian experience was placed in charge, succeeding Snowman who retired to Glyndebourne. The project came in about a year late and way over budget — £120 million was the last number I saw — and without transforming the sound of the Royal Festival Hall into anything much better than municipal baths. Among foreign orchestras, it remains a laughing stock.

Time after, the South Bank demanded more money and year after year the Arts Council coughed up.

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