Analysis: Private benefit question lingers at Royal Albert Hall

It's introducing new measures to benefit the public, but has not solved the question of members selling on tickets for profit. Tim Tonkin reports

Royal Albert Hall
Royal Albert Hall

The 150 year-old Royal Albert Hall last month invited journalists to the sumptuous surroundings of the Elgar room for the announcement of a series of initiatives designed to emphasise its commitment as a charity to providing public benefit.

Among the raft of new plans are discounted tickets for the disadvantaged, a science demonstration to be streamed live and broadcast to classrooms through Facebook, and music workshops for children.

Senior executives of the hall spoke enthusiastically of the new projects and promised to increase access and honour the institution’s purpose of "promoting an understanding and appreciation of the arts and sciences".

Meanwhile, there is no resolution in sight of one of the hall’s more burning governance issues, currently the subject of discussion with the Charity Commission – the sale, sometimes at highly inflated prices, of tickets for seats owned by members of the hall.

Opened in 1871, the hall is held in trust for the nation by the Council of the Corporation of the Hall of Arts and Sciences. Established by royal charter in 1866, the corporation’s objects are maintaining the hall and promoting the understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of science and the arts.

The council is the corporation’s governing body and is made up of 18 corporation members elected by the 330 "individual or corporate owners of seats in the hall who are the successors of those who subscribed capital to fund the hall’s original construction", as the Albert Hall’s website describes them. There are also five independent members.

Seats are held by all members on 999-year leases, and the rights to them have been passed down through generations or traded. Earlier this year, however, it was reported in The Times that two trustees – the writer Leon Baroukh and Richard Waterbury, the chairman of pensions at a chemicals firm – had sold tickets for their seats at a reported profit of more than £100,000 a year.

Although those who sold their tickets had not done anything illegal, the Charity Commission began talks with trustees after warning that the practice potentially breached its guidance on public benefit, which states that any private benefit must be "incidental" to the work of a charity.

The council voted in March to introduce a by-law preventing council members from selling tickets to their seats above box office value. But the wider membership of the corporation voted against the by-law at the annual general meeting.

Under the charity’s constitution, which was laid down by royal charter and successive acts of parliament, by-laws have to be ratified by all members of the hall, and any change in the constitution would require another act of parliament. The resulting impasse is the subject of the latest talks with the Charity Commission.

At last month’s launch event, Jasper Hope, the Albert Hall’s chief operating officer, said that members had a legal right to do what they wished with their seats under the provisions of the royal charter. But he added: "Everybody would like to see this issue resolved. It is a very, very complicated situation, but do I think there is a genuine will to resolve it? Absolutely."

Chris Cotton, the chief executive of the hall, said that members holding unwanted tickets were encouraged to hand them back to the box office. He said that of the 276,186 tickets allocated to members last year, 165,531 were returned and 110,655 were retained by members.

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