For London’s new concert hall to succeed, it must learn lessons from Hamburg

Hamburg's Elbphilarmonie opened with a phenomenal light spectacle over the River Elbe. Image: Alexander Svensson

With the proud announcement of ‘Fertig’ – finished – beaming out in white lights over the chic new neighbourhood of the HafenCity, Hamburg’s finally completed concert hall shone like a beacon of enlightenment amidst the industrial landscape of the river Elbe and its ports.

If you’ve never been to Hamburg, Germany’s largest port and second-largest city, it would be worth it for a visit to the Elbphilharmonie alone. It dominates the dual landscape of Hamburg’s port-side warehouses – the Speicherstadt – and the newly developed HafenCity, and is a phenomenal architectural work by Herzog & de Meuron.

It’s a monument to great design, culture, and ambition, and frankly I’m a little sad we don’t have one in London.

At least, not yet. Because, despite a near-death experience last year, plans for a new concert hall in London are underway once again.

The hunt is on for architects, acousticians and engineers to proffer a vision for a new cultural heart for the capital. Set to occupy the site currently taken by the Museum of London in the City, the hall would be the new home of the London Symphony Orchestra, under the iconoclastic directorship of Sir Simon Rattle.

Such iconoclast. So direct. Many conduct. Wow. Image: Membeth.

He claims acoustics at orchestra’s current base, at the Barbican, is no good for about a fifth of all orchestral repertoire – concerning for a city and an orchestra aiming to occupy the top echelons of the global cultural landscape. The absence of much of this music, contemporary stuff like Boulez and Henze (who?), may not be vastly concerning to most; but a few good staples like Berlioz’s Requiem are on the list of no-go tunes for the LSO in its current space, which – as a self-certified classical music nerd – I can say is pretty bad.

Let’s be honest. The Royal Festival Hall is a 1950s relic, the Barbican is architecturally significant but underpowered in its utility, and the Royal Albert Hall is all good fun, but not quite up to the challenges of all corners of the repertoire. And it’s a circle, which is pretty whack. So. London needs a new concert hall – a shining beacon of our historical, current, and future place on the world’s literal stage.

But Hamburg’s shiny new hall should stand both as a warning and an example to London. The city’s plan was to build a £157m concert hall in time for a 2010 opening.

Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie, seen from the River Elbe. Image: Hackercatxxy.

Safe to say, things did not go according to plan. In 2010, the city of Hamburg sued the construction company for spiralling costs, and the left-wing SPD faction in the city’s senate called for an investigation into delays and increasing bills. At the time of the hall’s eventual opening at the start of this year, the final bill for the city came to about £670m.

Financially, the stakes for London’s new hall are sky-high. Already, the project has almost been totally derailed after the £5.5m funding then chancellor George Osborne offered to produce a detailed business plan was taken away by his successor, Philip Hammond, last November.


Though the City of London Corporation has now stumped up £2.5m for the business plan, it’s not a good start. With the spectre of the failed Garden Bridge haunting all not-obviously-functional construction plans, London’s concert hall will have to prove its income streams can be strong and stable enough to withstand the whims of flip-flopping governments and investors.

Thankfully, the original cost estimate of £278m for the hall has now been revised down to £200-£250m; but with construction prices likely to rise as the fall in pound sterling and the impact of Brexit sets in over the coming years, there’s no guarantee that such a figure won’t spontaneously shoot through the roof.

It seems unlikely that Theresa May’s philistine government – when it is inevitably returned to power next month – will stump up any cash, but public money will likely be involved in some form. If it is, any whiff of escalating costs could sound the project’s death knell.

"Fertig" means "finished" in German. Image: Alexander Svensson.

But if Hamburg is the cautionary tale in financial terms, it must also provide inspiration for London in other ways. Because Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie is so much more than just a concert hall.

Firstly, it’s a landmark. It stands proud, with its metaphorical head held high above the city that paid for it. In a city that is not often on the top of tourists’ to-do lists, it provides a landmark to splash on postcards, guide books, and posters – and an obvious answer to the “But what is there to do in Hamburg?” question.

Its viewing gallery, free and open to the public, is a destination of its own, and its incorporation into the new HafenCity neighbourhood with its proximity to the more photogenic Speicherstadt makes it a logical place to go.

Hamburg's historic Speicherstadt, now part of a new heart for the city. Image: Thomas Wolf.

More importantly, it has a clear cultural purpose. Already, it has elevated an undervisited city that lagged behind others in Germany for its classical music provision. Hamburg, long an afterthought in conversations of high culture, is on its way to becoming a household name visited by the finest philharmonic orchestras of Europe and the Americas.

Furthermore, the Elbphilharmonie has become an outreach centre for schools’ education programmes, and has provided a vital cultural space for the many refugees Germany has accepted with a festival of Syrian music and culture bringing residents and new arrivals together in innovative projects and workshops.


And therein lies the rub for London’s new hall. It has no broad mission; no wider sense of how it can lift the profile of its host city to work in symbiosis with the city’s sense of itself.

London’s already a world leader in pretty much every sense – cultural, financial, and touristic. Though a new concert hall would be extraordinarily beneficial to Sir Simon Rattle, the London Symphony Orchestra, and those regularly inclined to attend classical music concerts, it wouldn’t give the city a new lease of life in the way that Hamburg’s has.

Nor, indeed, would it provide any kind of cultural outreach to schoolchildren or refugees, seeing as Britain as a nation is neither kind enough to accept refugees nor intelligent enough to devote significant class time to music and the arts in schools.

Despite its ballooning costs and vast delays, the Elbphilharmonie is assuredly confident of its purpose, its mission, and its contribution to the city.

Can London’s really be trusted to do the same? 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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