You would think there was enough financial scandal in the world to keep MPs exercised without denouncing the owners of private boxes at the Royal Albert Hall. But no. Sharon Hodgson, member for Washington and Sunderland West, has just shown once again that what really gets a Labour MP seething with indignation is not wrongdoing or injustice – it is the whiff of class. Sharon is upset that the Royal Albert Hall’s 330 members – who individually own 1276 privately-owned seats — are exercising their right to sell tickets for those seats through third party websites. A ticket for the Last Night of the Proms in September has, shock, horror, been spotted for sale at £1,500. According to Sharon ‘privilege is being abused for greed’. She is not alone in thinking this, either. The Royal Albert Hall’s former president, Richard Lyttelton, has added his name to the list of those lobbying for the practice to stop.
But why? There is nothing in the deeds to these seats to say that members cannot sell the right to occupy them for particular performances. On the contrary, the Royal Albert Hall encourages members to do this – it has published a pamphlet reminding them that they can either use the official ticket return service or, if they prefer, put the seats for sale on commercial websites. This has especially upset the likes of Sharon Hodgson, who believe that members should be forbidden from profiting from their seats because the Royal Albert Hall is a charity.
Yet that misunderstands the whole purpose of the private seats. They were sold in order to finance construction of the hall in the 1860s. Without the private boxes there would have been no Royal Albert Hall. It was always part of the deal – just as with debenture seats at Wimbledon – that the owners could sell tickets for the seats when they were not personally using them. It is untrue that there is mass profiteering going on – it is more a case of members clawing back a little of the money that they have invested in the arts. Last week, a private box at the hall went on sale for £2.5 million. On top of this the owner will have to pay an annual service charge of £14,000. It is possible to recoup this investment over a number of years, but not every performance is going to have people queueing up to buy seats at £1,500 a pop.
If we want good arts venues we need private capital to be ploughed into them – and selling seats in the way the Royal Albert Hall did is an effective way of doing it. But capital is not going to be forthcoming if those who do put in the money are then shouted down. I don’t know if Sharon Hodgson is a frequent visitor to the Royal Albert Hall, but she needs to be reminded that besides the 1,276 private seats there are another 3996 seats which are not privately-owned and are for sale often at £30 or less. If she can bear the sight of a few wealthy people watching from private boxes she might even enjoy herself.