Last Friday, it was announced that the Southbank Undercroft had been saved. After a 17-month campaign, representatives from Long Live Southbank (LLSB) – the lobby group started by a bunch of local skaters (full disclosure: I’m a member and have helped out during the campaign) – signed an agreement with The Southbank Centre, which owns the land, to ensure the legal protection of the space for the foreseeable future.
LLSB’s victory isn’t just a success in the battle to save the treasured skate space, but also serves as inspiration to other grassroots lobbying efforts. Protesting can be frustrating; it’s hard to get people to listen – particularly lawmakers, Tesco Express bosses and whoever stops bankers from causing global economic crises, with plenty of demonstrations merely being ignored or swept away. But LLSB proves that, with enough determination and perseverance, seeing a result can be possible.
Of course, it’s probably going to be harder to convince an oil company to quit drilling in the Arctic, say, than to stop a skate park from being destroyed. But if campaigners are passionate enough, LLSB's success demonstrates how there’s no reason to believe they won’t eventually be heard. Talking to skate filmer and Undercroft regular Henry Edwards-Wood, he pointed out where much of that passion originates.
“I started going there as a young kid because it felt like a sanctuary,” he said. “It’s a linear community that doesn’t judge people for their appearance, or their economic, ethnic or social backgrounds. Everyone is welcome, providing they adhere to the unwritten rules, which are to respect the space.”
"The Undercroft" by Trav Wardle
Keith Hufnagel – pro-skater and the founder of HUF – agreed, adding that Southbank “gives kids a family; they’re able to express themselves in art, in design, in whatever they see going on – and it gives them a learning experience outside of the house”.
Every aspect of the LLSB campaign was provided by a member of the Undercroft community. For example, artist and skater Arran Gregory designed the column logo, and Roger Gonzales – another Southbank local – put together the animated ident that appears at the beginning of each campaign video. It was this, as well as the cause itself, that encouraged others to offer up their creative output, giving a genuine voice to a section of Britain’s politically-active young people and helping the campaign grow to over 150,000 members.
LLSB has mobilised skaters, artists, musicians, filmmakers and local parents to work together and collaborate. Legendary pro Chad Muska commented that it’s “the epitome of skateboarding and what it represents to us. Skateboarding is Southbank. It’s the kids coming together, pushing themselves, having fun, enjoying life and doing something positive”.
"Victory" by Jason Caines and Ekaterina Ochagavia of The No Comply Network
Of course, it wasn’t all fun. Collaborating with skate companies and holding events might have been the high points, but there were plenty of planning and council meetings to attend, and lots of standing at the campaign table (which was set up outside the Undercroft) throughout the winter months, wondering whether it might all be for nothing.
Skaters like Domas, Joey Pressey and Louie Jones sat on the tables through rain and snow to promote the message. “Southbank is a free community where social barriers are broken down by expression,” said Joey, explaining why he was so committed to the cause. And he’s right: the Undercroft isn’t just for the skaters – the various LLSB skate jams saw thousands of non-skaters come along to watch, support and connect with each other over a shared passion for the space.
That said, the space clearly holds particular significance for anyone who's ever rolled around it on a board. As Southbank local and Landscape Skateboards amateur Jin Shimizu highlighted, “It’s amazing to see a whole history of the spot through visual media, and to be able to go to the spot itself and see for yourself how hard the trick was and the thought process involved. Skating there is an invaluable experience.”
Illustration by Trav Wardle
The legal battle against the Southbank Centre wouldn’t have been possible without the help of planning lawyer Simon Ricketts, whose firm SJ Berwin were incredibly supportive. Over the last 17 months, LLSB smashed two UK records for objections against a development; the first was roughly 15,000 signatures, and the second was just over 26,000. These results forced The Southbank Centre to withdraw their Festival Wing planning applications twice – a success that earned a statement of support from London Mayor Boris Johnson. It’s been truly inspirational to watch a grassroots campaign make such a visible impact on some of London's most influential people and institutions, most noticeably on The Southbank Centre itself.
The largest council-funded arts institution in Europe, the campaign has opened the Centre up to a level of scrutiny and public inquiry it’s never experienced before. Their initial ignorance of the Undercroft’s importance, their lack of consultation with skaters, their ill-conceived PR strategies and their plan to move the park (leaving behind all of its cultural history) to underneath the Hungerford Bridge exposed the SBC as an arts centre that was somewhat out of touch with the needs of its own city.
Now, in light of the LLSB victory, the Centre has the opportunity to engage with the Undercroft as a space that's just as important as all the others on their site. During the 90s, the SBC damaged slabs, laid grit and introduced other deterrents to dissuade people from skating the space. The recent agreement has hopefully brought this approach to an end, allowing skaters and the Centre to work towards a harmonious, mutually beneficial relationship.
Tim Leighton-Boyce, former editor of Rad Magazine, told me, "A key point is that these specific banks have been skated continuously since the mid-70s. As far as I am aware, that makes the site unique in the way it allows us to see how each different generation of skaters have interpreted the same found landscape to suit their own style of skating.”
The symbiosis that skaters and the Centre can now work towards will ensure this is allowed to continue.
Multiple copies of the LLSB's report, ready to be distributed to various London institutions
What’s more, the LLSB generation now feel more politically empowered, engaged with current affairs, hyped on the city they live in and proud of the spaces they use. The campaign stands as an example to other people around the world who want to protect their communities from commercial development and retain whatever relationship it is that they had with that specific area.
As 16-year-old Palace Skateboards amateur Blondey McCoy pointed out, “The Undercroft is the heart of British skateboarding. When you come here, you feel like you’re literally part of the history of it. Which is a massive deal.”
LLSB have outlined that history in a 120-page report – filled with photos, quotes and research on the space – which they hand-delivered to 150 institutions, including the Houses of Parliament, the Mayor’s office and the London Arts, a few days before they found out they'd won their battle.
The campaign and its victory represents more than just a group of people who wanted to save what is arguably the UK’s most important skate spot. It’s also a symbol for how young people can really affect change if they have the drive and determination to do so.
One more time: Long Live Southbank.
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