The president of the Royal Albert Hall, Jon Moynihan, has defended what he calls its "idiosyncratic" governance structure and attacked the Charity Commission’s demand for reform as "politically correct" and "regrettable regulatory overreach".
The hall, a charity, is governed by a council on which 19 of the 24 members are elected from among their own number by people who own a quarter of the hall’s 5,276 seats and in some cases sell them at inflated prices on the internet.
In a dispute lasting nine years so far, the commission has told the hall it thinks there is a "real risk" that the council will prefer the interests of seat-holders to those of the charity and wants the system changed to a majority of non-seat-holders on the council.
The hall is conducting a governance review, but has insisted it will keep the seat-holder majority on the council. It remains to be seen whether the commission will eventually use its statutory powers to introduce a change.
Moynihan’s intervention came in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, where he suggested that the Albert Hall’s success meant the new major concert hall proposed for London by the conductor Sir Simon Rattle should be run along similar lines.
His article appeared four days before the hall’s annual general meeting on Thursday, when seat-holders – also known as members – are expected to approve the latest annual report, which contains a lengthy explanation and justification of the governance structure.
The article by Moynihan, chair of the venture capital firm Ipex Capital, recalls how the building of the hall in the 1860s was partly financed by investors who bought a quarter of the seats and were entrusted with the governance. The seats have been inherited or traded: they currently change hands at about £100,000 and a 12-seat box was recently marketed for £2.5m.
The system "is certainly idiosyncratic", the article says, but "the unique way the hall is run is directly responsible for its unparalleled success." It says the hall gains £5m a year from members, who give up their tickets for 140 of the best shows a year, and does not have recourse to the public purse.
"Astonishingly, this national treasure is now under pressure, in what would seem like regrettable regulatory overreach, from the very body that should be applauding its success – the Charity Commission," it goes on.
If the commission has its way, the article says, "quangocrats" will become a majority on the council, leading to the loss of seat-holders’ energy and financial contribution "just to satisfy some currently politically correct, one-dimensional view of how a charity should be organised".
A spokeswoman for the commission said it had no comment on the article: "Our position remains clear – we expect the charity to address serious concerns about its governance and management."
The annual report to be considered at Thursday’s AGM contains for the first time a lengthy explanation about members. It says that their seats are private property, distinct from the charity; that they cannot be said to be depriving the charity by using their tickets; and that they are free to sell them in any way at any price.
Richard Lyttelton, a former president of the hall who is campaigning for reform, said today that Moynihan’s article was correct in estimating the annual transfer from members to the hall at £5m, but failed to mention the net income members receive from their seats, which would total £6.3m if they were all sold through the hall’s box office.
In fact, the draft annual report says 60 per cent of members’ tickets were sold through the box office in 2016. Lyttelton said it was not possible to estimate the value of this proportion because it would depend on which seats were returned, but pointed out that some of the remaining 40 per cent would be sold well above box-office prices. Seats for the Last Night of the Proms in September are currently being advertised on the internet agency Viagogo for up to £1,300 each.
On the question of public funding, Lyttelton pointed out that the hall was awarded a combined total of £40m from the national lottery and the Arts Council in 1996. This was used for a refurbishment that played a large part in its recent success.