The Rattle Hall plan has been badly shaken, maybe to its death rattle, by what seems to be yet another piece of new government revisionism. Cancelling the grant of £5.5m given by George Osborne to create a business case for the £278m Centre for Music, to give it its proper name, the government has said bluntly that it does not offer value for money for the taxpayer, and is therefore not affordable. It wants the money back.
A year ago a feasibility study, also sponsored by Osborne for £1.25m, produced a positive report and the new grant was seen as a green light for the project with an opening in 2023. It is understood the Treasury is not asking for that money back.
There are plenty who will agree with the u-turn. Some, like Julian Lloyd Webber, said the money would be better spent on music education. Others said it would be built in the wrong place, a much better site would be on the Thames opposite Tate Modern at Blackfriars. Then there was the argument that, as the home of the London Symphony Orchestra, the other four main London orchestras (if you count the BBC’s) would be disadvantaged. “London is already home to world class culture and music venues, from the iconic Royal Albert Hall to the Barbican Hall and the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre” a government spokesman said, laughable to anyone in the music-making business, but effectively scotching any chance of an alternative.
The whole issue arose a couple of years ago when Simon Rattle complained that there was nothing in London to match the modern halls of Europe, like Vienna and Amsterdam; then it was announced that he had agreed to be the LSO’s next music director, but that the new hall was not a condition of his taking the job. The LSO’s managing director, Kathryn McDowell, said the orchestra had to play in other cities just to find out how good they were. Then the Barbican, LSO, Guildhall School and the Corporation of London came up with the new plan.
What is proposed is not just a concert hall. It would be built for the digital age, said the Barbican’s MD Nicholas Kenyon, with education facilities that would offer “immersive” experiences for London youngsters and communities, plus digital recording facilities. “As the study demonstrates, the Centre for Music is not just viable but could be transformative, significantly raising the profile and visibility of music and offering world-class arts and learning opportunities for all” Kenyon said when the feasibility report was published. “The elements are all there now to create a unique opportunity: we want to work with all our partners to shape and realise the vision in a way that can be inspirational for all”.
Well, it may have inspired Mr Osborne but Mr Hammond is not so easily moved. Perhaps if Rattle Hall was going to be in Nottingham, Bristol or Liverpool the attitude would be different, but as London’s Labour mayor said, it looks like a vote of no confidence in London. Not only is the concert hall plan up in the air as a result, but also the solution to the Museum of London’s long yearned for move from the London Wall site to Smithfield. And the concert hall scheme includes improvements to the Barbican Hall to make it into a centre for contemporary music and to the LSO’s St Luke’s education centre to give it more of a community role, both also compromised now.
When you look at the budget Kenyon and his planners are contemplating, £5.5m seems small beer. Perhaps the Treasury knows that since that rosy feasibility study last December the business case has not been made (perhaps the shadow of Brexit looms too dark). Otherwise the grant would have been the lever that set the ball rolling, but the whole machine remains at standstill with that all important mark of public approval not there to encourage the private sector.