Plans for a new London concert hall have been thrown into doubt, by the revelation that the government has backpedalled on a commitment from George Osborne to fund a business case for the project.
The proposed Centre for Music, backed by conductor Sir Simon Rattle, was to have been supported by a detailed business case for its establishment. A £5.5 million funding package was pledged to prepare the bid, but with just £1.25 million spent, funding has been withdrawn.
A government spokesman said it “has concluded that it does not currently offer value for money for taxpayers and is not affordable. Therefore it will no longer fund contributions to this project. We know this will disappoint those who are working hard to deliver this project and we wish them well with developing alternative plans for financing.”
“This is very disappointing news,” commented Mark Boleat, policy chairman at the City of London Corporation. “We believe the government should have waited to see whether a business case could have been developed before making this announcement.”
And London mayor Sadiq Khan added: “This is bad news for London. World-class cities need world-class music venues like the Centre for Music. This looks like a vote of no confidence in London from the government.”
The Centre for Music has been proposed for the Museum of London site in the City of London, with a project already costed at £278 million to provide a new home for the London Symphony Orchestra under its incoming leader Rattle. An earlier report came up with the costing, which reckoned that private fundraising could bring in £125 million, leaving almost £200 million to be found from public sources.
The report, drawn up with Arup and Arup Associates, suggested there is an opportunity to create a new, 21st century take on a concert hall, developing a space that would take advantage of new techology. At the same time, it argued that space in the Barbican would be freed up to widen the scope of music offered there.
While the LSO is currently resident at the Barbican, the hall there is considered by musicians to fall short. Conductor Daniel Harding told the Guardian: “It is a very difficult place to make a blended and high-quality sound. It is really a great conference venue, not a concert hall. If you hear the LSO play in the Barbican one night and Amsterdam or Paris or Berlin the next night, it is a completely different thing.”
The Museum of London site will become free for reuse, once the museum moves to a new home within a substantially remodelled western end of Smithfield Market. Designs by Stanton Williams and Asif Khan were selected from entries to a design competition, and a similar competition route was being considered for the new concert hall.
There are reports that the scheme could potentially proceed under a regime of entirely private funds.
LPA Perspective: This is the sort of project that could – if well executed – turn out to further polish London’s reputation as a centre for the arts. Or it could drag on and become an over budget, problematic major project. Just ask Hamburg, whose concert hall project is massively over budget. And the new hall does not have universal support from the arts sector. Musician Julian Lloyd Webber said the project involved “money being spent on the wrong thing at this time”.
But, once again, London is in a situation where a major infrastructure item that could provide substantial wider benefits, is being sacrificed on the altar of cost savings. For a similar reason, the capital limps along without a major conference centre, as many have said is needed; and our exhibitions happen either to the east at ExCel, or in the tired Olympia. With Earls Court gone, many major events have shifted to the Midlands.
Other British cities have managed to establish well-designed concert halls. But while London has the Royal Albert Hall, the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall, among others, none is felt to be acoustically strong.
The other issue to do with this particular project, is timing. The Museum of London will not, even with a following wind, vacate the site for some long while. Surely that means there is plenty of time for an enterprising team to come up with an innovative scheme that doesn’t cost the wallet-wilting sums being mentioned, and could provide a great, acoustic space that can be built quickly. There also needs to be a lead sponsor – how about some exciting architecture and, hey presto, the Dyson concert hall. The air conditioning would be excellent.