Offer to safeguard Wales’ National Concert Hall – and its classical music series – could save taxpayers millions

A plan to safeguard the future of St David’s Hall as the National Concert Hall of Wales could see much-needed repairs and refurbishment works worth millions carried out on the building, and a revitalised events programme designed to safeguard the classical music repertoire, while also bringing some of the most celebrated rock and pop artists to perform in Cardiff.

A report to Cardiff Council’s Cabinet reveals that the Hall is in need of necessary repair works and significant sums of money would also be required to fully upgrade the venue.

However, with Cardiff Council already facing a £53m hole in its 2023/24 budget, the authority would struggle to find the capital for ongoing maintenance and repairs. Consequently, for several years now, it has been investigating ways in which the venue’s future could be secured at zero or little cost to the taxpayer.

The Council’s Cabinet will consider a report on Thursday, December 15, which recommends approving in principle, an offer from the Academy Music Group Limited (AMG) to take over running the building via a long-term lease.

Final approval of any lease would be subject to a further Cabinet report following public consultation as part of the Council’s budget setting process, and the publication of a Voluntary Ex-Ante Notice (VEAT notice) a public notice of intent.

The offer from AMG would see it take on full responsibility for the building, removing the council’s liability for maintenance and subsidies, while also:

  • Investing in a series of essential restoration and ongoing maintenance
  • Investing in modernising the communal areas (bars/foyers etc)
  • Investing in the main auditorium – including new seat coverings and flooring
  • Investing in the lower stalls – installing removable seating to enable standing for Academy events (this proposal has been tested and approved by the Hall’s original acoustic engineers Sandy Brown to confirm it would have no noticeable impact on the venue’s world-class acoustics)
  • Investing in the stage area
  • Committing to employing all existing Council staff at the Hall on existing terms and conditions through a TUPE agreement.

The AMG proposal also aims to further build the reputation of St David’s Hall as the National Concert Hall and one of the leading classical music venues in the UK. As part of this AMG have committed to:

  • Deliver all aspects of the classical programme without subsidy from the Council with the aim of developing and improving the events calendar.
  • Continue to deliver the international concert series whilst eliminating the risk to the Council of securing orchestras, which will now be provided by AMG.
  • Ensure the classical music programme receives adequate priority by setting aside 60 days during the peak event period (September-May). Any classical or wider community events that cannot be accommodated within the 60 days priority slots (September – May) would be arranged around the commercial event programme throughout the calendar year. The current classical programme utilises up to 73 days.
  • Continue to use an independent classical music programme advisor
  • Maintenance of the venue’s key musical instruments including the concert organ and 5 Steinway pianos
  • Promotion of the classical music offer through their extensive marketing channels
  • Deliver AMG’s music product to Cardiff bringing a significant number of high-quality rock and pop music events from the best up-and-coming artists to perform at the Hall each year
  • Continue to work with Arts Active to support the classical programme and community events
  • Make the Hall available for community events free of charge on the days when the Hall is scheduled to be open and for a small community rate on the days it is scheduled to be closed (to cover the basic operational overheads).

Cabinet Member for Culture Parks and Events, Cllr Jennifer Burke Davies, said: “There is undeniably a need to secure investment into St David’s Hall. Given the current pressure on budgets – we face a £53m budget gap next year – the council is keen to explore alternative models which can revitalise and upgrade the building, while protecting the venue’s status as the National Concert Hall of Wales.

“This council knows the importance of St David’s Hall to classical music lovers and the proposal does protect the main classical programme, community events, and includes opportunities for these to be extended. The Hallwould continue to deliver a world-class international concert series and classical music programme which gives residents and visitors access to classical music, delivered by respected full symphonic orchestras in the Hall’s specially-designed auditorium.

“It also commits to a substantial investment to repair and upgrade the building while ensuring the hall’s reputation for world-class acoustics will remain. The original acoustic engineers Sandy Brown have seen the plans for the seating arrangements and are content that they will not adversely affect the acoustics and that St David’s will maintain its reputation as one of the best sounding concert halls in the world.

“The proposal also protects all existing employees on their current terms and conditions through a TUPE agreement, but the council will absorb the Arts Active team into the education department so that they can continue the great work they do bringing classical music to new audiences each year.

“This council has faced ten years of austerity where it has seen its budget reduced by over a quarter of a billion pounds. We have had to focus our spend on key statutory services ensuring that education and social care, which swallow up around 72% of the council’s budget continue to deliver good results for our residents.

“We have been looking at ways to find suitable partnerships for St David’s Hall and the New Theatre since 2014 to reduce the burden on the taxpayer of the council subsidising both venues. In 2016 the council undertook a full open procurement process, but this did not identify a suitable partner able to commit to run the St David’s without subsidy and able to invest in the building.  A deal has subsequently been done to secure the future of the New Theatre, but up until now we have never had an offer which could work for St David’s Hall. This offer, which commits to maintaining and upgrading the venue, ensuring the classical and community programme will remain, while introducing a vibrant new music offer to the city, might be one of the few opportunities we have to safeguard the future of St David’s Hall for years to come.”

A report brought to Cabinet in December 2021 set out a detailed schedule of priority works. The cost of those works, other improvements and modernisation runs into the millions.

Cabinet then asked council officers to produce an outline business case on the future of St David’s Hall and, in the meantime, implement a building management and health and safety strategy to ensure the venue remained open and useable. The latest report to Cabinet notes that this ‘approach can only reasonably be continued in the immediate short term as a stop gap to permanent remediation.’

The outline business case requested by Cabinet focussed on three options which were all reviewed by specialist consultants.

Option 1

Council retains St David’s Hall – this assumes Council invests capital funds into property repair and refurbishment in line with professional advice and the continuation of the £688k annual budget subsidy.

Option 2

AMG offer – requires no capital investment and no annual subsidy from the council. Provides for an unsubsidised continuation of the full classical programme with an ambition to further develop the offer. AMG will take over the maintenance of the building, modernisation of the venue, while protecting the classical music calendar, and bringing some of the most celebrated rock and pop artists to perform in Cardiff.

Option 3

Go to the market. Consultants undertook a market engagement exercise. There was a good level of market interest in operating the building, but only if the council held responsibility for building liabilities, maintenance, and repairs.

The recommendation to Cabinet, following engagement with key stakeholders, including BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Arts Council of Wales; Welsh National Opera; and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama is to accept the AMG proposal in principle.

The Economy & Culture Scrutiny Committee will examine the cabinet report at a public meeting at 5.00pm, Monday December 12thin Committee Room 4, County Hall. Elected Members will test proposals to understand their rationale and evidence base, the Council’s requirements and anticipated outcomes, and the next steps. The meeting can also be viewed on a live stream here  Home – Cardiff Council Webcasting (public-i.tv)   All scrutiny published papers are available to view here Agenda for Economy & Culture Scrutiny Committee on Monday, 12th December, 2022, 5.00 pm : Cardiff Council (moderngov.co.uk)

An extraordinary meeting of Cardiff Council has been called for 4.30pm on Friday, December 9, to debate a motion on St David’s Hall. You can view the agenda here Agenda for Council on Friday, 9th December, 2022, 4.30 pm : Cardiff Council (moderngov.co.uk) and the motion and any amendments to that motion (which may be published closer to the date of the meeting. You will also be able to view a livestream of the meeting on the day via the same link.

Cardiff Council Cabinet will take the report on St David’s Hall at its public meeting in County Hall from 2pm on Thursday, December 15th. The meeting’s agenda, reports and papers will be available to view closer to the date here Agenda for Cabinet on Thursday, 15th December, 2022, 2.00 pm : Cardiff Council (moderngov.co.uk) where you will also be able to view a live stream of the meeting on the day.