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Skateboarders on the Southbank: A financial or social case?

Southbank CentreThere has been a lot of talk recently about the skaters’ space in the undercroft of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre. As with every socially hot topic the views are many and contrasting. There seems to be some valid cases on both side. Despite my bias I would like to find out who has the strongest case here and on which grounds.

In the initial period when the news first mentioned the redevelopment project I found it very hard to find information on what was being planned for the skaters’ undercroft. By the time the plans were announced it was made very clear that the undercroft was being designated for new retail space, yet the fate of the skaters was still marked as TBC (at least in the papers I managed to get hold of). I am not questioning whether and how the plans were made, but I have a simple question: if the skaters’ future was taken into account as an integral part of the development, shouldn’t it have been part of the big press release in this first place?

As the emphasis was placed on the new designs and no mention was made of the skaters, it felt to me that skaters, graffiti artists and crew were secondary in the planning and development process. Seemingly there is a conflict here with the Southbank’s image as a cultural centre, socially aware and representing the cultural diversity of our communities.

There has been an at least apparent prioritisation of the commercial over the social and the fact that a lot of time and money had been spent to redesign the site, with skaters as a second thought did not help the overall perception of the project. We now know that the Centre is proposing to relocate the skaters to the undercroft under Hungerford Bridge which they claim is of “equal size and equal visibility”.

I missed the name of the gentleman who gave an eloquent account, in a video posted on the Southbank’s website, of the reasons why the undercroft needs to be relocated. His name is not mentioned in or around the video, nonetheless he is speaking for the Centre.

There are a couple of points I am unsure of in his account and where I feel contradiction is the word. He states in the video that: “There are two reasons the undercroft has to be relocated. “Firstly physically. This is the first point at which most people will encounter the festival wing. (…) it will provide the main entrance into the heart of the festival wing with what we call the festival undercroft space.”

From the artist impressions that have been circulating the plan seems to include a rather large entrance staircase on the southwest side of the site opposite the Royal Festival Hall, effectively where the entrance is currently today and not on the undercroft side. There has also been clear indication (again confirmed in the video) that the undercroft is being designated for restaurants and bar use. So what is the intended use of the undercroft? Or is this putting forward a financial argument in a somewhat convoluted way? The undercroft is obviously located in a high foot traffic strip of the embankment and therefore will be highly profitable if put to commercial use. If this is the case, why the convolution?

It also seems that the Southbank is painting a very dramatic picture stating that “If we are unable to use commercial retail in this location it will fundamentally undermine the project as a whole. Which means we will not be able to have a children’s and families art centre, we will not be able to have a youth space, a heritage centre or indeed an education centre.”  Is the whole project really dependent on this relatively small space to be put to commercial use? It seems unlikely that with the spaces, crevices and terraces available all over the site and the planned expansion, an alternative design could not be drawn to provide an equally financially viable alternative. I would be very intrigued to see that maths!

The second argument put forward is financial. “(…) the project itself will be delivered through a number of funding sources including commercial loans which will be supported by cafes and restaurants; and this site is the most valuable site in the area. We have to be very conscious too that we have got to maximise the value out of the smallest area, so that we retain the cultural focus of the center.” Yet, is the cultural focus being retained if those same people, who have transformed the undercorft into a symbol of London’s youth culture, are being relocated to the margins of the site? The Southbank has young people, skaters and artists at its physical centre (right bang in the middle between the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall) as a great testament to our inclusivity and diversity. What does relocating them say about us as a community, as a society and as citizens? Will youth and youth culture continue to be a real priority? And I dare say: have they ever been?

I would also like to ask, is it acceptable the financial case for the redevelopment is prioritised over the social case, particularly at a venue which has communities and culture at its heart?

Jude Kelly, Southbank Centre’s artistic director, in a report by the BBC states that the development would allow more people in the community to access the centre.  “We’re not changing the idea of the skateboarders, they are a fixture, they’re part of our community,” she said “We are just moving the room 100 yards away on the river front… we don’t want them to go away.”  100 yards is effectively placing the skaters outside of the Southbank Centre although the land my effectively be managed by the centre, so it questions the centrality of young people to the project and the future of the site.

In the video the un-named gentleman also states that the two sites (current and proposed undercrofts) are indeed of “equal in size and equal in visibility”. If that is so why not incorporate the Hungerford Bridge undercroft in the plans and designate that to a commercial use expanding the size of the site to the south?

In the currently difficult financial climate young people are bearing the brunt of the recession with very few jobs and development opportunities available to them across the country and indeed across the world. For this very reason young people should be included not marginalised. For such a wonderful institution like the Southbank which has had young people and artists at its heart for generations is this the time to relocate them? These young people and artists may one day be exhibiting in the centre. Cliché as this may sound they are our future teachers, builders, bankers, nurses and carers. So what better way than developing the Southbank Centre with young people still at it heart.

The redevelopment of the Southbank Centre is a great opportunity to revitalise this London hub of culture and diversity. However it would be a great loss if skateboarders and artists were to be relocated as they are an integral part of the Southbank and should remain at its heart. I sense there is an overwhelming consensus that we are not in need of another Giraffe, Starda or Carluccio, at least not in this location. The balance sheet does need to balance, yet maybe another balance to take into account is that of community and social benefit.

Maybe financially it is not all black and white (it hardly ever is) with a little re-design and financial re-think the Southbank Centre can stay true to their community and social ethos.

Or does it really make a difference whether the skaters are under  the Queen Elizabeth or Hungerford Bridge? After all they will still be able to skate on the Southbank.

What do you think?

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