Boris Johnson kickflips South Bank scheme into touch

An artist's impression of the Southbank Centre's Festival Wing scheme. Photo: Miller Hare
An artist's impression of the Southbank Centre's Festival Wing scheme. Photo: Miller Hare
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
by -

Southbank Centre artistic director Jude Kelly returns from duty at the International Society of Performing Arts conference in frozen New York today to find her cherished £120 million Festival Wing scheme effectively banjaxed – by that stalwart supporter of it, Boris Johnson.

The Mayor of London has been a doughty champion of Kelly’s plans to open up the QEH, Hayward Gallery and Purcell Rooms and give even more free public space on the Southbank site, but as GLA preliminary planning meeting opened last week, he spiked it with yet another gesture towards the street cred he so desperately wants and (look at him!) can never have. He has told the hearing that the scheme should go ahead, but with the skatepark remaining at its heart. And he has the final say on planning in London.

“The skate park is the epicentre of UK skateboarding and is part of the cultural fabric of London,” he said.

It is nothing of the sort. It is a found space in the undercroft originally meant for storage that the Southbank have done up for them over the years, but which is the keystone to the new scheme if Kelly is to realise the money she needs. There are plenty of skateboarding sites around London, and this sport, if that’s what it is, has never been any part of the fabric of London’s culture.

That is not Kelly’s view. She acknowledges the skaters as a community as entitled to consideration as any other, and has offered them a £1 million new, bigger, better “epicentre”, 100 yards away under Hungerford Bridge, which they have persistently refused to discuss. The present skate site “helps to make London the great city it is,” says Boris. What arrant nonsense.

[pullquote]Thanks to the bungey-jumping, bicycling, break-dancing streetwise Old Etonian mayor, the “culture” of a couple of dozen obdurate skateboarders is to be put above that of the long underserved musicians, poets, visual artists, dancers and public[/pullquote]

Where is the perspective here? And where is the consistency? The development will put the Southbank at least on a par with the cultural centre of any great city in the world. Adaptations have been made to its ambition to satisfy the misgivings of its neighbour, the National Theatre, but otherwise there is wide praise for the scheme - except, of course, from the 20th Century Society which has decided not to let the bandwagon pass by and condemned the entire plan out of hand.

But the only way the Festival Wing can happen, in tune with the government’s, and presumably Boris’s, own doctrine, is to mix public funding with private money, and it depends entirely on a large slice coming from retail development. There had been misgivings about this sort of retail vulgarity beside the venerable Royal Festival Hall in the past, but they were thrust away with the great success of the eateries that opened on the riverside in 2007, yielding £3 million to the Southbank’s budget without compromising its cultural dignity.

At the very kernel of the Festival Wing is the dark concrete maw that the skateboarders claimed as their own 40 years or so ago, and they have been there ever since. But this central space is the vital element: without it the whole project collapses.

It means the arts loving public will have to endure another generation or more of the outmoded, outdated, uncomfortable elements that the site’s administrators having been trying to find a solution for since at least the mid-80s. This should have been it.

The skateboarders persistently refused to meet Kelly and her team leaving no choice but for her to go ahead and get a new skateboard centre designed, by architects, at a projected extra cost of £1 million.

"We want skating and other urban arts to continue to flourish at the Southbank Centre and we hope these proposals show we’re committed to a permanent, riverside skate space right next to the Royal Festival Hall,” Kelly said, and the designs went on display in September on the hope of generating some actual discussion. They didn’t. Flexibility was built into the proposal so that any input could change the shape organically. There was no input.

So, thanks to the bungey-jumping, bicycling, break-dancing streetwise Old Etonian mayor, the “culture” of a couple of dozen obdurate skateboarders is to be put above that of the long underserved musicians, poets, visual artists, dancers and public.


  1. Try and get your facts right eh? As a freelance journalist it might be worth fact checking form time to time….Meetings. I have been to meetings where Jude Kelly and skaters were present. There has never been a refusal to meet. The plans were originally drawn up with NO consultation. …, ‘A couple of dozen skaters’…..what nonsense. The campaign to retain the undercroft resulted in the largest number of objections to a planning application ever. Not just petition signers, but proper, real objections to Lambeth’s planning process. Also, not 25 years.. try 40. The alternative space was only offered after objections flooded in. The initial idea was the total removal of any skate/urban space.

  2. Oh, just did some fact checking on your own piece. Your very first line “Jude Kelly returns from duty at the Internet Services Providers’ Association conference”… did you actually mean the INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS” ???? If you can’t even get that right.. well………

  3. Well done on correcting the conference name so quickly. Now go through the rest of the piece…

  4. This is the worst article I’ve ever read in The Stage. I’m no fan of Boris but this is probably the best decision he’s ever made. Although obviously he didn’t really make a decision, he just bowed to overwhelming public pressure. This is a victory for the public over the ever-encroaching forces of the commodification of public space.

    The skate spot is an iconic site, immortalised in films and video games, probably more internationally recognised than the Royal Festival Hall. History has been made there, and will be made again. It has seen more genuine art and culture than any retail development will ever know. Southbank is already at least on a par with the cultural centre of any great city, and the skate spot is one of the reasons for that. Thankfully it will now continue to be the unique, precious, integral part of London’s cultural fabric that it is, and it doesn’t need £120 million, or even 1 million, to do it, it just needs to be left alone.

    I’m stunned that such ignorant drivel can be written by someone working in the arts, and published in The Stage. Art does not equal whatever you can get funding for, frequently it’s the opposite.

  5. Absolutely DISGRACEFUL article, what on earth is the point of publishing such a 100% partisan polemic, knocking the idea of any kind of factual truth into touch. This guy should be SACKED!
    I guess the worst is:
    “The skateboarders persistently refused to meet Kelly and her team”. The plans were a complete bolt out of the blue to the skaters in March 2013, announced with a great big razzmatazz after NO CONSULTATION OR DISCUSSION WHATSOEVER. Since then, I’ve witnessed skaters coming together with SBC, only to watch the meeting being banjaxed by an absolute failure to listen. Meanwhile, the idea that the Undercroft cannot be the epicentre of UK skating “…because it is a found space” shows how the writer has absolutely no understanding at all of what street skating is or means. Your articles are always dodgy, Stage, but in this case you should be really ashamed.

  6. The article may be a little strident but it gets the argument right. I like to see the skateboarders too but keeping the space for them is a ridiculous price to pay for a modern arts complex. I also find it bizarre that Boris thinks that concrete hole is worth keeping but Earls Court and the London Fruit and Wool Exchange were not.

  7. What a load of old tosh! You should be ashamed of yourself, Simon. It’s a very special space, a tourist attraction in itself, and I am willing to bet she can find the money elsewhere instead of subjecting the South Bank to yet more inane Giraffe clones.

  8. OK. This is what happened. The plans were announced in March 2013 and consultation process was started with undercroft users. They launched their petition campaign, and the Southbank halted the planning process to give the undercroft users more opportunity for consultation. Some skateboarders attended an open forum weekend in September. Three public workshops were held to inform the design of the proposed new space and key campaigners went in an observationary role, they took no part. No undercroft users attended.

  9. The slate area however obnoxious to those working at the stage IS an important part of the fabric of thr city. It also manages to remain a fairly wholesome area whereas many new high cost skate schemes end up being sad places where undesirable activities take place.

    This area has naturally ended up in this use and that to my eyes has it’s own beauty and creativity. Do you not understand that?

  10. Simon, you are sadly mis-informed. Whilst SBC did halt the application, it was on the understanding that they would use the extra time to explore ways of keeping the undercroft. This they completely failed to do, using the time to see if they could sway minds, add to their own petition (by placing on seats at events), posting Youtube vidios (then withdrawing them). They failed to sway the public opinion. They cannot accept that they have failed in so many ways… Other objectors to the SBC plans included the National Theatre, and tehe 20th Century Society, local resident groups and user of the SBC. The SBC have spent £3.2 million pounds on this flight of fancy, employing four PR companies (one linked to a Board Director, Susan Gilchrist, who is also a director of the Brunswick Group). They also used their mailing list of 200,000 to try to drum up support, but STILL they failed to get the support. At what stage do you ask why they can’t get support. At what stage do you accept the plans, as they stand, are not liked?

  11. Here is a Journalist who has no idea about the identity of skating and it’s associations, which are not the stereotype.

    Southbank was where I first went to witness skating at the age of eight back in 2002. Since then the freedom that the space provides and the ingenuity of the users of the undercroft amazed me and I’m a skater as of now.

    You do not deserve to be in Journalism with such one-sided reporting and may even ask at some point, should your ignorance continue, to use a freedom of Information request about where you got your facts. Because you have tried to trumpet one argument and completely Ignore the other.

    Continue being arrogant if you wish, but The SBC are Liars

  12. Awful reporting. I honestly can not remember reading a more biased or factually inaccurate article. Ever.

    Factual inaccuracies (that I recognized instantly, there are probably many more)
    The Undercroft was “originally meant for storage”
    The Undercroft has been “done up” for the skateboarders
    The Undercroft has been skateboarded for 25 years (I see Simon has now corrected this. Some lies are hard to maintain!)
    Southbank Undercroft is not the epicentre of UK skateboarding
    Skateboarders “persistently refused to meet Jude Kelly”
    Skateboarding “has never been any part of the fabric of London’s culture”
    The new skatepark will be “better” than the Undercroft (And your skateboarding credentials are..?)
    Destroying the Undercroft is “the only way the Festival Wing can happen”
    This only concerns the culture of a “couple dozen” skateboarders
    The “misgivings about this sort of retail vulgarity.. (have been) thrust away”

    Simon Tait, there is this thing in journalism called research, but I won’t bore you with the details..
    Do you get paid for this?

  13. It would be nice if you could list all the corrections as you do them. As it stands it appears you are correcting piece meal, and so comments posted about the piece’s inaccuracies would appear rather odd. I think it’s called an ‘addendum’. but hey, YOUR the Journo. Supposedly.

  14. Simon, if you’re not going to correct the ‘couple of dozen’ figure I’d be interested in knowing how you came up with it, because I can’t see any possible way that you or anyone else can seriously think it’s accurate.

  15. As a member of “the arts loving public” the last thing I want is more corporations setting up eateries of overpriced food and retail units selling tat destined for landfill.

  16. Opinion pieces are all well and good, and I’m happy to read those I disagree with. Facts however should be sacred.

    This number of errors here (many identified in the other comments) is staggering.

    Some of the most clueless, least professional journalism I’ve ever had the misfortune to read.

  17. Simon Tait, this article is a disgrace to journalism and an Arts correspondence. If you were to have written such a damaging, venomous, and misleading diatribe against a canonized artistic practice, that was equally jammed full of factual errors and distortions due to insufficient understanding or research, there would be calls for you to resign.

  18. Unbelievable. Such a one-sided, arrogant, condescending piece of trash. If the author doesn’t understand a particular culture, so be it, but he should save himself the embarrassment of making himself out to be such an uninformed self-centred egocentric snob.

  19. I suppose this protector of high art and denigrator of the undercroft activists would care to explain why one of the finest – or used to be – recital halls in the UK, the QEH, is to host Al Murray the man, the guvnor, the pub landlord, in Novembers. So he endorses the zKelly, Bishop. Arts zcouncil mantra that anything goes at the drop of a cash register. Disgraceful

Leave a reply