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How the Southbank Centre Betrayed Arts Workers

London's Southbank Centre is a product of municipal socialism – but today it represents a corporate attitude to the arts, with plans to layoff nearly 400 workers while managers earn six-figure sums.

Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, where millions of people flocked to the Southbank site to celebrate British arts, technology and science. Unfortunately, following the recent announcement of nearly 400 redundancies at the Southbank, it remains to be seen what will be left to commemorate.

Formed in 1986 after the dissolution of the Greater London Council (GLC), the Southbank Centre (SC) is a charity which oversees the operation of the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall & Purcell Room, National Poetry Library, Hayward Gallery as well as the Arts Council Collection.

The Southbank Centre gets roughly 37% of its yearly income in grant funding from Arts Council England (ACE) as a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) and the rest of the money is generated through ticket sales, donations, commercial activity and rent from the many restaurants and cafés that line the Thames. Dismissed at the time of its construction by Winston Churchill as “three dimensional socialist propaganda,” today’s visitors to the Southbank Centre are hard pressed to find its radical legacy among the chain restaurants and street food pop-ups.

Following a complete site closure in March as a response to the Covid-19 crisis, SC has announced a potential hibernation of the site until April 2021 and a huge reduction in staff numbers, many of whom are still on furlough. The entire Visitor Experience and Ticketing teams will be completely cut with only senior managers remaining, while other teams look set to shrink by well over 50%. Despite reopening this week with the Among the Trees exhibition, the Hayward Gallery also expects to mothball between October and April.

The major brunt of the cuts are to the Visitor Experience and Ticketing teams, where all positions below senior management have been cut. These are the teams that sell tickets, welcome and seat visitors, invigilate the gallery spaces, sell ice creams at the interval and generally are the face of Southbank Centre. The union has successfully fought against the use of zero-hour contracts in these teams, and negotiated full accreditation to the London Living Wage in 2017. These gains look set to be washed away.

Furthermore, these front of house teams are by far the most diverse in the organisation. The job cuts will therefore disproportionately fall on BAME workers, and we estimate that the whiteness of the organisation will increase by at least 6% overnight once the Visitor Experience and Ticketing teams are served notice.

A further blow to our members has been swingeing cuts to our long-held enhanced redundancy terms. Claiming it cannot afford to pay out the full terms, slightly enhanced redundancy terms will now be imposed at a cost of £800,000. Our longstanding policy agreement was equivalent to three weeks pay for every year of service, meaning that our members will be collectively denied an additional £2.1 million in redundancy payments, in some individual cases this will mean a shortfall of £25,000.

Overall, our members are bitterly disappointed with the leadership of the Southbank Centre. Built under the auspices of a Labour government and then managed by the GLC, the Southbank Centre is a reminder of the possibilities of municipal socialism. But its history since 1986 serves as a guide to Britain’s attitude to art and culture under neoliberalism. After Thatcher dissolved the GLC, the venues were formed into a charity and have been funded since by a combination of Arts Council grants and commercial income.

Following the redevelopment of the Royal Festival Hall in 2005-’07, the major source of commercial income has been the restaurants in the former Undercroft space. Further expansion into the skate park under the QEH was halted by community protests in 2013. Elaine Bedell, a former ITV producer who was previously responsible for bringing X-Factor to our screens, was appointed as CEO in 2017. In 2018-’19, she received a pay rise of £46,373, while all other staff received a 2.3% pay rise – meaning that she essentially got 10 times bigger a pay rise than any other member of staff.

Workers are also deeply concerned about the proposed future model for how Southbank Centre reopens. The Senior Leadership Team has repeatedly used the phrase “start-up” to describe how they see SC operating from April 2021. This includes reducing SC’s own productions to 10% and increasing the level of commercial hires and rentals of the venues to 90%. This will very likely lead to a dilution of the artistic programme as priority is given to events which make money rather than premiering new work.

The proposal to fully close SC for two days per week will deny visitors access to the foyers of the Royal Festival Hall – one of the last remaining truly public spaces in London, where there is no pressure to buy a ticket or a coffee in order to just enjoy the space. SC has charitable objectives to provide artistic content as well as conditions of the ACE grant which it must achieve, and it seems very possible that these are under threat.

An open letter from staff has been circulating, asking staff and allies of SC to support our calls to the CEO. As the Hayward Gallery reopened on Saturday August 1st, PCS and Unite branches united to bring out over 200 members to protest the cuts and redundancies, and we are actively exploring a ballot for industrial action. We want to see the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport step in and provide proper grant-in-aid funding to secure our members’ future and honour our existing redundancy terms.