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OPINION - The Southbank Centre is UK's fifth most visited attraction, but we need more government investment

The Southbank Centre is the UK’s fifth most visited attraction and the UK’s largest arts centre. We’re an important space for local communities and the UK's visitor economy as a major attraction yet we receive no public funding for the upkeep and maintenance of our venues and we now need urgent support.

Over 20 million visitors come to our 11 acre site, our bars and restaurants, our outdoor stages as well as to our venues that include the Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery. We also provide open community spaces used freely by dancers practising their moves through to book clubs, local community ensembles to young people revising for their exams — or people simply seeking warmth, company, and a coffee with some live music.

The cost for the works we need to complete to upgrade and fix the infrastructure of our Grade One listed building, as well as to complete vital upkeep to the Southbank Centre campus is £165m. We need £50m immediately to do the most urgent work and we’re asking our landlords — the Government — to contribute £27m towards this. Such a commitment would help us secure major matching contributions from donors, grant-makers and sponsors in a private and public partnership.

This was the place my mum and dad dragged me to get some culture

Christopher Nolan

Southbank Centre hasn’t received any contribution from the Government to the capital costs of running the Royal Festival Hall since 2008 and this wonderful postmodern icon will be 75 years old in 2026. This means it will also be 75 years since the Festival of Britain, for which it was built — a festival conceived by the Government in 1951 to imagine a better future for everyone through the lens of ideas, music and art. The Southbank Centre belongs to the Nation — and its very popularity attests to its continuing usefulness. Christopher Nolan, the director of Oppenheimer, in accepting his Best Director award on the Royal Festival Hall stage said, “this was the place my mum and dad dragged me to get some culture — and I guess some of it stuck.” Keir Starmer last week described “the thrill” of playing at the Festival Hall as a child and the “opportunities music gave me”.

It’s wonderful to see our audiences steadily increasing (as evidenced in the Annual London Visitor Attractions Ranking), but that also means inevitable daily wear and tear on our buildings. We now need to replace our heavily used lifts (all dating back to the 1970s), and we need to fix the roof. Around the site, we need a new drainage system to ensure we adapt to increasing weather fluctuations as well as replace cracked paving stones and install better lighting. We cannot meet these costs out of our revenue income.

We receive no public funding for the upkeep and maintenance of our venues. This means that we’re responsible financially for the entire 11 acres of public realm, which costs us roughly £13m a year simply to maintain. We adapt and have robust revenue business planning, despite repeated cuts to our funding, to ensure that we still provide the very best in music, performance, poetry and art — so that other young people, the future Christopher Nolans of this world and others, will be able to get their first experiences in live culture. What we ask is for the Chancellor to acknowledge the importance of our buildings to the communities and audiences they serve. Capital support is needed to maintain them as a major London attraction.

Elaine Bedell is CEO of the Southbank Centre