Boris Johnson kickflips South Bank scheme into touch

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.
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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.