Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport First Report


  13. The Royal Opera House in which the companies performed until the middle of 1997 was a mid-nineteenth century theatre with turn-of-the-century stage machinery. Prior to the redevelopment, it was feared that the House might have to close on health and safety grounds and thought that essential maintenance alone would cost £25 million. Backstage conditions were considered "barbaric".[38] Before the inauguration of the National Lottery, the Warnock Report questioned the realism of the House's ambitions to redevelop the Covent Garden site.[39] When the National Lottery was introduced, the Royal Opera House seized its opportunity. It received the first very large grant from the Arts Council in its additional post-1993 role as a National Lottery distributing body, which remains the largest lottery arts grant made.[40] It was awarded £55 million in July 1995, with a further sum of £23.5 million earmarked for payment subject to certain conditions; the second tranche was offered in March 1997.[41] Lord Chadlington, who was later to become Chairman of the Royal Opera House, was Chairman of the Arts Council Lottery panel at the time of the original grant and supported it, but, in his own words, "had only one vote" when the decision was reached by the Arts Council.[42] Ms Allen, who was subsequently to become Chief Executive of the House, assisted in the Council's assessment of the lottery application, but was not herself a decision-maker.[43] The Walker-Arnott Report concluded that "great care was taken in the assessment"; the application "was thoroughly and professionally measured" by reference to the same criteria as other applications; there was "no evidence of partiality or special treatment".[44]

  14. The same Report does, however, make a number of criticisms of the formulation and implementation of the conditions for the lottery grant. The summary of the Report published by the Arts Council describes these as "detailed and technical criticisms", but does not specify them.[45] One of the stated preconditions for the original grant was the provision of an integrated monthly cashflow for the closure period. In fact, the Report observes, such cashflow could only be meaningful once the closure plans were settled, which did not take place until at least a year after the first payment was made. Another precondition asked for management plans for control of operations in the theatre or theatres chosen for performances during the closure period, which again depended upon closure plans being settled. Mr Walker-Arnott concludes: "perhaps the difficulties which arose in respect of closure could have been avoided if the Arts Council of England had rigorously stuck to its pre-condition that it had to see a cashflow for the whole of the closure period and had to see the management plans for the whole of that period".[46]

  15. One of the conditions of lottery grants by the Arts Council and most other distributing bodies is that grants should be made to projects comprising a significant degree of additional partnership funding from other sources.[47] The lottery grant of £78.5 million covered 37 per cent of the £214 million cost of the development and the closure period.[48] The Royal Opera House Trust is running a development appeal under the chairmanship of Mrs Duffield seeking £100 million. By October 1997, the appeal had received gifts or pledges totalling almost £75 million. Mrs Duffield was justifiably proud of this achievement, but hopeful rather than confident of reaching the target in view of competing claims on people's generosity.[49] The balance of funds will be obtained from sales of commercial property on the site. Depending upon the success of the appeal, the House hopes to retain some of this property, which has been independently valued at £70 million, or the proceeds from its sale as an endowment to benefit the House in future.[50] Although the success of fund-raising for the redevelopment has been considerable, the property sales are of land purchased for the Royal Opera House from funds voted by Parliament.[51] The public subsidy of the redevelopment therefore amounts to about two-thirds of the project cost.

  16. During the preparation and initiation of the project, the Royal Opera House has argued that redevelopment possesses the following advantages:

  • larger, more accessible foyers, a single entrance for all patrons and access to the restored Floral Hall for the general public;

  • two new performing spaces for small-scale productions-a Studio Theatre seating 400 and a convertible studio seating up to 200;

  • refurbishment of the main auditorium, with the addition of air-conditioning and improvements to sight-lines, leg-room and seat configuration;

  • improved technical facilities to enhance production efficiency, leading to an increase in stage time for rehearsals and performances of 35 per cent;[52]

  • enhanced access for the disabled, including additional places for patrons using wheelchairs;[53]

  • a refurbished and more flexible orchestra pit;

  • a permanent home for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in place of their current base in Baron's Court;[54]

  • enhanced facilities for broadcasters, including the installation of remote-controlled cameras;[55]

  • increased opportunities for performances by visiting companies;[56]

  • an addition of approximately 80 seats in the main Auditorium;[57]

  • revenue benefits from additional sales and from accommodation and management cost savings.[58]

Few witnesses questioned this case for the redevelopment, although the Covent Garden Community Association were critical of some aspects of the design and its implementation.[59] Some written evidence was sceptical about the value of the redevelopment given the insuperable limitations of the Victorian amphitheatre, including the quality of the sight-lines for ballet.[60]

  17. Major construction projects of this size and complexity are rightly haunted by the spectre of the new British Library, the mismanagement of whose construction was the subject of a highly critical report by our predecessors.[61] It might also be recollected that construction of the Sydney Opera House was begun in March 1959, but the first public performance was not held there until September 1973.[62] Despite or perhaps because of the "white elephant" factor and past cost overruns and timetable slippages, those who gave evidence were confident that the project was well-run, subject to proper oversight by the Arts Council, pursued in consultation with the local community, on schedule and within budget.[63] The Walker-Arnott Report found the project to be well-run and considered that it could currently be regarded as on time and on budget.[64] The Secretary of State was satisfied from this finding that "the redevelopment scheme is being run effectively and efficiently".[65] Time will tell whether their confidence is justified.

38  Evidence, pp 2, 27; Warnock Report, paras 3.2, 7.9; Q 219. Back

39  Warnock Report, para 7.18. Back

40  Evidence, pp 1, 2-3; Q 7. Back

41  Evidence, p 2. Back

42  Q 103. Back

43  QQ 202-203. Back

44  Walker-Arnott Report, para 3.2.5. Back

45  Arts Council Summary of the Walker-Arnott Report, 7 October 1997, section 15. Back

46  Walker-Arnott Report, para 2.7.1. and Appendix H. Back

47  See Second Report from the National Heritage Committee, The National Lottery, HC (1995-96) 240-I, para 83. Back

48  Evidence, p 27. Back

49  Evidence, p 67; QQ 229-233. Back

50  Evidence, p 27; QQ 127, 230. Back

51  See paragraph 12 above. Back

52  Evidence, pp 27-28. Back

53  Evidence, pp 28, 111; see also Evidence, p 82. Back

54  Evidence, pp 28, 18. Back

55  Evidence, p 114. Back

56  Evidence, p 112; see also Evidence, p 129. Back

57  Evidence, p 111. Back

58  Putting our House in Order, p 24. Back

59  Evidence, pp 74, 80-81; QQ 248, 250, 254. Back

60  Evidence, p 143. See also memorandum submitted by Mr Richard Anstey. Back

61  Fifth Report from the National Heritage Committee, The British Library, HC (1993-94) 550. Back

62 Back

63  QQ 2-3, 35; Evidence, pp 28, 81-82; QQ 249, 255. Back

64  Walker-Arnott Report, paras 2.3.6, 2.6.5. Back

65  Q 274. Back

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Prepared 3 December 1997