Councillors raise deep concerns about possible St David’s Hall deal
Ted Peskett, local democracy reporter
Councillors have re-affirmed their deep concerns over a proposed deal to take over a much-loved concert hall in Cardiff.
Academy Music Group (AMG), which forms part of Live Nation, proposed to take on the operation of the concert hall – best known as Cardiff’s principle classical music venue – on a long-term lease.
Councillors again raised their concerns over the potential takeover, including a potential monopolization of venues in Cardiff by Live Nation, during a lengthy Cardiff Council economy and culture scrutiny meeting.
Members of the committee also raised concerns about the potential uncertainty over St David’s Hall’s classical music programme, the threat to the building’s acoustics and the value of the deal.
Cllr Catriona Brown-Reckless said at the end of the meeting, held on Monday December 12, that she was “left more concerned than she was when she came into the meeting”.
She added: “I feel the only party that is going to benefit from this is Live Nation. The council is going to be worse off and Cardiff will be culturally worse off.
“If you strip this back, I fear that Live Nation are walking away with our concert hall for a fraction of the amount that it would cost them to build a concert hall.
“I think the council is not really getting a good deal with this.”
Cardiff Council’s cabinet will meet on Thursday December 15 to make a decision on whether to approve in principle for the council to enter into a long-term property lease with AMG for St David’s Hall.
The council currently pays a subsidy of about £1 million per year for the operation of the venue, which also has a backlog of maintenance costs running into the millions of pounds.
As part of AMG’s proposal, they would pay for the repairs needed on the building and any other modernisation work.
Responding to Cllr Brown-Reckless’ comment, Cardiff Council’s director of economic development, Neil Hanratty, said “it may well be” that Live Nation would be able to build a venue for more, but added that “it is of benefit to the council as well”.
He said: “The risk to the programme is far greater if we sit here and do nothing.”
Live Nation currently operates the Cardiff International Arena, formerly known as the Motorpoint Arena, and will be a joint operator of the new arena which will be built at Cardiff Bay.
A representative of Cardiff Civic Society at the meeting, Ceri Williams, said: “Should Live Nation be able to operate the new arena in Cardiff Bay and St David’s Hall, the company will pretty much have a stranglehold on musical events and pricing in the city.”
Cllr Brown-Reckless expressed similar concerns, saying later on in the meeting: “How is the council going to stand up to someone with a monopoly and the extent of power that Live Nation has got?”
The cabinet member for culture, parks and events, Cllr Jennifer Burke-Davies said: “St David’s Hall does need updating.
“AMG are in a position that they would be able to bring acts to the city that we just wouldn’t be able to bring on our own because they have that relationship with the record labels, with the managers.”
Mr Hanratty added: “There will be a contract. The council will have a lease and there are clauses in the lease which will allow us to control the things that are important to us.”
Many of the details in AMG’s proposal are yet to be ironed out in discussions between Cardiff Council and AMG and a contract is set to be negotiated.
The council said that King’s Counsel legal advice will be sought on a draft contract.
A voluntary ex-ante transparency (VEAT) notice will then be published. A VEAT notice is used to publish a commercial intention to the wider market.
This allows competitors to come forward with a challenge to the proposal, which would lead to a procurement process. A VEAT notice will normally stand for about 10 to 20 days.
A major concern among members of the public, people who work at St David’s and some councillors is the potential impact that proposed changes to the building could have on its revered acoustics.
According to Cardiff Council, AMG’s proposal is to use palleted removable seating, rather than retractable seating currently in place at St David’s Hall. This would allow seating to be removed to create a standing area for pop and rock concerts.
A council report says that the acoustic engineers involved in designing the building, Sandy Brown, gave assurances that the proposed alterations “should have no noticeable impact on acoustic quality”.
However, one committee member said he could not find any detailed report from Sandy Brown re-affirming this in the confidential papers of yesterday’s meeting.
Councillor Rodney Berman said: “I have read the confidential papers and I have read the non confidential papers and I cannot see any report from Sandy Brown which gives an assessment of what taking out the seats in the stalls could do to the acoustics.”
Council officer, Ruth Cayford, said: “AMG sent the information on the changes they would make for seating
“There was some discussion on modification and in their final proposal they concluded that there would be no noticeable difference to the world class acoustics to the human ear.”
Cllr Berman responded: “I have read the appendix to that report… it gives an assessment of the current acoustics of the hall.
“What I haven’t seen in that is any assessment of what would happen if you took the seating out.”
Ms Cayford said: “I haven’t got the report in front of me, so we can send that to you. I assure you that it is there.”
Mr Hanratty added: “We are not approving any scheme that has been put forward at this point. At this point in time it is just a proposal.”
Another concern among members of the public is the protection of St David’s Hall’s classical and community programme of events.
As part of AMG’s proposal, there will be a contractual commitment to set aside 60 days during the peak period (September to May) to cover this programme, plus 25 days during the off peak period.
However, one committee member pointed out that the details and guarantee of the 25 days extra were still not entirely clear.
The current classical music programme at the venue consists of 73 days.
Cllr Berman said: “What we are not entirely sure about is what the commitment is for those events beyond the 60 days to make sure that we do have the same offer.
“People out there desperately want to know the answers to these things. I have read these papers and I don’t see any commitment beyond the 60 day minimum.”
Mr Hanratty said: “We have had this offer from AMG and our intention now is to negotiate a contract and that will present lots of opportunities for us to get a better deal than what we have currently got on the table at the moment.
“We are continuing a discussion and a dialogue with them and the 25 days has come about because we want assurances on Cardiff Singer and Welsh Proms, which fall outside of that original offer of peak period days.
“I think there are many issues that we need to resolve and we will work them through.
“We will come up with a draft contract and we will put that out there as the opportunity, which will also go through a VEAT. It will be published.
“Everyone will see it and will have opportunity to comment on it and challenge it.
“What we have got in front of us at the moment isn’t the final deal. It is an in principle deal which we will now go and negotiate.”
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.
Cardiff Council is aiming for a final cabinet decision on the potential takeover in March 2023.
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