After years of speculation about relocation to another site in Belfast, on 22nd March 2018, BBC director-general Tony Hall confirmed plans to redevelop the existing Broadcasting House site at Ormeau Avenue. Lord Hall said that the investment was a sign of the corporation’s commitment to Northern Ireland.

This is another sign of our commitment to Northern Ireland. We’ve already made the biggest single investment the BBC has made in Northern Ireland in 20 years which is going to transform our digital output. Now we’re making sure we have a Broadcasting House fit for the digital age, giving audiences more access, ensuring we can give them the best possible programmes and making sure we operate as efficiently as possible.

Tony Hall, BBC director general

Construction work on the original Broadcasting House building began in 1938 and continued during the initial years of World War II. The facility was opened in May 1941 and contained a concert hall and several radio studios. It would be another twelve years before television finally arrived in Northern Ireland. With the introduction of BBC Radio Ulster and other sections of the local operation continuing to grow – most notably news and current affairs – there were two major extensions to the Ormeau Avenue site, neither of which bore any resemblance to James Millar’s neo-Georgian design for the original six-storey Broadcasting House building. The first add-on was an eight-storey, red-bricked office block, positioned to the right of Millar’s structure, which opened in 1975. It’s referred to internally as the Office Block. And in 1984, a three-storey extension was added at the back of Broadcasting House. This addition is referred to as the TV Block.

The current work space has been deemed “inflexible, fragmented and inefficient”. It’s full of those pesky walls and corridors that inhibit collaboration and efficient use of space. Production teams are spread across locations, often residing in temporary office space.

But how far will the £77m go? Properly addressing the structural issues and future-proofing this site as an up-to-date broadcast centre will be a massive, not to mention costly undertaking. But today’s announcement is lacking in one vital ingredient: detail.

Apart from a bit of high-level blurb about making the site fit-for-purpose, we’re none the wiser about what is actually going to happen. For example, what will be the fate of the original Broadcasting House building? Obviously, it’s listed, so, at the very least, the outer shell must be retained. But what of the interior structure/framework of the building? Will the 1975 and 1984 extensions remain or be demolished? The latter, most likely. There’s not a lot of spare real estate on the current site – but how do they intend to utilise it? Might they extend their footprint further into Linenhall Street West? Like Broadcasting House in London, are they considering digging down and creating new space underground?  Not sure that £77m would cover that.

And what are these “contingency plans” that will be instigated when the building work is in progress? The comments about disjointed buildings and the age of the original building suggest that some major renovation/construction work is on the cards. So, how will they maintain services whilst this work is going on? Are they going to have to resort to paying to rent space elsewhere in Belfast? A costly business. As we’ll discover later, there’s not much free capacity in the existing Belfast facilities.  And there’s not a lot of empty space in the existing site to accommodate any sizeable new building structure.  Relocation of office/administrative functions is one thing but having to temporarily relocate technical facilities can be a lot more tricky. They will want to avoid having to purchase additional technical equipment just to accommodate a temporary move out of their existing facility.

Of the little detail that has been divulged today, what key nuggets have we gleaned:

  • The Blackstaff House facility is being retained. Rumours had been circulating for some time that this site would be sold off. Blackstaff House is not part of the main Ormeau Avenue site.
  • A new building is to be constructed at the back of the Ormeau Avenue site.  No detail about the size or purpose of this structure.
  • Studio A will get some new VR kit.
  • The main outside broadcast vehicle will be refreshed.
  • A new temperature-controlled server room will be created.

All rather, erm…underwhelming.  Not quite as exciting as the big building projects in Glasgow and Cardiff.  More on those shortly.

Eighty years ago, in spring 1938, the original plans for the first Broadcasting House were revealed. It’s fitting that today, we announce this new investment by the BBC which will maintain and enhance our rich heritage and history on this site in exciting new ways well into the future.

Doing nothing was not an option. This is a big decision for the BBC and it’s about much more than just bricks and mortar. This major investment is a commitment to licence fee payers in Northern Ireland and will help us to become a more efficient and flexible broadcaster, better equipped to meet the needs of our diverse audience for years to come.

Peter Johnston, director, BBC Northern Ireland

  

Background

Prior to today’s announcement, there had been much speculation about possible locations for a new BBC Northern Ireland headquarters building in Belfast – all triggered by the announcement in December 2013 by BBC Northern Ireland director Peter Johnston that the corporation was looking for a “a central, neutral and accessible site”. The news of a potential new HQ in Belfast came at the tail end of a decade of major change for the BBC’s estate.

In 1998, the BBC launched a full review of its real estate. There was an acknowledgement that the corporation occupied many old buildings, which were poorly utilised and costly to maintain; working conditions were poor in many cases and very few of the buildings were suited to the needs of modern broadcasting. BBC Governors and Executives drew up a 15-year plan to modernise and consolidate the corporation’s estate. Five guiding principles were developed:

  • Flexibility: buildings were to be flexible to adapt to a rapidly changing industry.
  • Technology: space had to be able to adapt to the technology of the future without expensive reconstruction work.
  • Talent: buildings must attract and retain the best talent.
  • Audiences: buildings should promote the relationship with the public, inviting them in wherever possible and being able to see programmes being made.
  • Cost: buildings that help us save money not waste it.

Since 1998, a number of major projects have been delivered.  And it’s safe to say, there have been many twists and turns along the way, and debateable value for money in some cases.
  

  • BROADCASTING HOUSE, LONDON (RENOVATIONS/CONSTRUCTION STARTED: 2003; ALL WORK COMPLETED: EARLY 2013)
    • Cost: £1.046bn. The original estimate was £991m.
    • In 2003, the first of two phases of renovation and construction was started. The original Broadcasting House underwent much-needed structural repair. As well as renovation work on the main building, two post-war extensions were demolished to make way for a new extension to the east.
    • The redevelopment was part of a wider cost-saving strategy to consolidate the BBC’s property portfolio and centralise its London operation. According to the BBC, this will “ultimately produce savings of more than £700m over the remaining 21-year life of the BBC lease on Broadcasting House.”
    • The redevelopment of Broadcasting House was the largest capital project ever undertaken by the BBC. It took a decade to complete, cost £1bn and involved the biggest single migration of staff in the BBC’s 90-year history.
    • The new Egton Wing was completed in 2005. The newly refurbished Broadcasting House and Egton Wing were officially opened by the Queen in April 2006. The Egton Wing was fully fitted out by 2007.
    • In 2012, the Egton Wing was renamed the John Peel Wing. It houses BBC London, BBC Arabic Television and BBC Persian Television, together with the reception area for BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 1Xtra.
    • A second phase of building work involved the construction of a large wing to the rear of the building, joining the two buildings and creating a plaza between them. The original architects were replaced for not agreeing to cost-related changes. Construction work was completed in 2010.
    • BBC radio networks moved to other buildings near Portland Place during the building work. BBC Radio 2 and BBC Radio 6 Music moved to new studios in nearby Western House (later renamed Wogan House) in 2006.
    • The construction company handed over the new buildings to the BBC in 2011. The BBC World Service moved to Broadcasting House from Bush House in April 2012. BBC News relocated from Television Centre to Broadcasting House by March 2013.
    • The Queen officially opened the extension on 7th June 2013.
    • The original completion date for the entire project was 2008. Although some of the delay could be put down to rectifying a condition that affected stone-clad steel-framed buildings (referred to as Regent Street disease), the National Audit Office would eventually criticise “weak governance and poor change control processes” and a failure to define sufficiently the scope of the project.
    • In January 2015, the National Audit Office published a report that claimed Broadcasting House cost £89m per year to run – which works out at roughly three times the national average. The NAO said the BBC needed to make much better use of space to achieve value for money.

   

  • MEDIA VILLAGE, LONDON (OFFICIAL OPENING: 12TH MAY 2004)
    • Cost: unknown. However, in the publicity materials for the new complex, the BBC stated: “In November 2001 the BBC entered into an innovative 30-year partnership with Land Securities Trillium (LST), which enables it to achieve its property vision at no additional cash cost to the licence fee-payer. LST is part of Land Securities plc, Britain’s largest property company. The BBC retains a 50 per cent stake in the joint venture partnership but the development costs are spread over the 30 years. The aim of the partnership is to use the skills, market influence and financing of Land Securities to take the risk and cost away from the BBC.”
    • When first opened, the 17-acre complex in west London could accommodate around 6,000 people across five buildings. In addition to the BBC White City building (also known as White City One), completed in 1990, the new structures and their purpose were:
      • Broadcast Centre (40,491 square metres): home to the BBC’s television playout business.
      • Media Centre (39,014 square metres): provide office accommodation for BBC staff.
      • Energy Centre (7,719 square metres): provide power, heating, cooling and other services to the entire site.
      • Two perimeter buildings (later known as Garden House and Lighthouse): available to be sublet to other media companies.
    • A further building was planned – The Music Box – which was intended to serve as a concert hall and recording venue for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. However, it was cancelled before construction work began.
    • John Smith, BBC director of finance, property and business affairs said: “In its television and radio output the BBC has always been a major cultural patron and through a revived building strategy we are now seeking to express those same high standards of creativity in our architecture and design.  We want to create working environments which will inspire our staff to new broadcasting heights, add to the BBC’s heritage and encourage the local community to come in and see just exactly what goes on inside their BBC.”
    • In June 2015, the BBC announced the sale and sublet of the Media Village as part of an ongoing drive to reduce the size and cost of its building portfolio. Under the deal, the BBC would receive £87m for the sale of four acres of freehold land and the lease of six buildings – three of which would continue to be occupied by the BBC. The BBC claimed it would make £33m worth of annual running cost savings. The three buildings vacated by the BBC – White City One, Media Centre and Garden House – were set to be refurbished and brought back on to the market by late-2016.
    • Anne Bulford, managing director of BBC finance and operation, said: “The BBC is determined to work out of the minimum number of buildings possible whilst still representing the audience it serves. Today’s announcement is an excellent deal for licence fee payers. We will now save £75m a year from prudent property management, meaning even more of the licence fee will go on what matters most to our audience – the programmes they love.”

  

  • THE MAILBOX, BIRMINGHAM (OFFICIAL OPENING: SEPTEMBER 2004)
    • Cost: £45m.
    • Based in Birmingham city centre, The Mailbox complex occupies 25 acres and houses shops, offices, bars, apartments and hotels. BBC Birmingham is one of the main tenants. Other high-profile residents include Harvey Nichols. The BBC footprint covers more than 100,00 sq ft on the first and second floors.
    • The Mailbox was to be the new home for BBC Birmingham. Its previous base – Pebble Mill (a purpose-built broadcast centre, opened in 1971) – was deemed no longer fit-for-purpose; the building was also reportedly suffering from concrete cancer in places. Rather than renovating Pebble Mill, the BBC opted to move to shared accommodation at The Mailbox. However, many within the BBC believed that The Mailbox was an inappropriate location for a broadcast production hub.
    • At the time, it was promoted by the BBC as “…a new approach to its buildings policy across the UK – an approach which ensures more money for programme-making by creating contemporary, open, flexible and cost-efficient environments which stimulate and attract talent and are more welcoming to visitors.”
    • Speaking about the move in June 2004, English regions controller Andy Griffee said: “This represents a new and exciting dimension for the BBC as the world’s most famous public service broadcaster.

      “Our heritage and global brand are wonderful strengths but they can also make us appear intimidating and aloof.

      “At Pebble Mill it wasn’t possible but very soon I look forward to seeing listeners and viewers join us in The Mailbox to see their programmes being made.

      “Our new digital studios and offices have been designed to be accessible and inviting to audiences while offering staff a really creative working environment.”

      Alongside Mr Griffee’s words, we have these comments from Ranjit Sondhi, the governor of the BBC with special responsibility for the English regions: “The Mailbox represents a major investment on behalf of the BBC to Birmingham.

      “It is one of the most technologically advanced broadcasting centres in Europe.

      “Moving back into the city means we will be much more closely integrated with the community and that means playing an even more important role in the economic and cultural life of Birmingham and the West Midlands.”
    • BBC Birmingham would continue to produce networked programming for BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Radios 2, 4 and 5 Live.
    • In December 2014, head of BBC Birmingham, Tommy Nagra, said that in spite of the move from Pebble Mill in Selly Oak to the city centre – which was intended to give the BBC a higher profile in the city and region – the feedback had shown that the BBC had in fact become less visible in the region. “It is one of the biggest frustrations for me: people think we have stopped making programmes in Birmingham. We have got a lot of work to do on that front.” He said the corporation would take more events and productions out to communities. He also said the Mailbox studios would also be relaunched: “We want it to be and open and accessible place and allow people and small businesses to come in, play with kit and innovate.”
    • Mr Nagra’s comments were made over 2 years after the BBC announced that it was set to move factual programming out of Birmingham and down to Bristol. TV shows such as The Hairy Bikers, Coast and Countryfile, as well as radio programmes such as You and Yours, Farming Today and Cost the Earth were to relocate. At the time, the BBC suggested the cost of the move – including redundancy packages – would be around £4.5m. Inside sources claimed the cost would be much higher. Rachael Ward, from the BBC’s Information Policy and Compliance department, said: “Birmingham is one of the smallest bases, and most susceptible to job losses through single commissioning decisions and too small to justify the significant investment in new technologies that will drive efficiencies elsewhere.”
    • Speaking in August 2015, Keith Murray, BBC representative for the NUJ said: “The Mailbox is a shell of its former self. Five years ago it was vibrant and shows were being made for BBC One and Radio 4. Now there are studios that are unused and row upon row of empty desks. The BBC does not appear to have pride in the Birmingham operation anymore.” Luke Crawley, assistant general secretary of broadcast union BECTU said: “Birmingham is the biggest city outside London but the BBC doesn’t seem to want to make programmes there.”
    • BBC Birmingham continues to produce the weekday soap Doctors, at the BBC Drama Village at Selly Oak, in addition to Father Brown, The Coroner and WPC 56. Long-running BBC radio soap The Archers – which has a long history with Birmingham – also continues to be made there.
    • The 2012 exodus of programme-makers to Bristol and Salford as part of the DQF initiative left the BBC’s portion of The Mailbox half-empty.
    • In November 2013, it was announced that around 80 roles would move to Birmingham, including those involved on the Upfront induction course, digital arts forum The Space, trainee and apprentice schemes and outreach activity.
    • In May 2014, the BBC put out a statement saying that a further 100 jobs were to be moved out of London and up to Birmingham. Staff potentially affected included training, contracts, reward, employment, diversity and Ariel teams. The BBC Academy training unit would move to Birmingham.

    

  • PACIFIC QUAY, SCOTLAND (OPENED: JULY 2007)
    • Original budget: £125.6m.
    • Final cost: £188.1m.
    • It is claimed that the scope of the project changed after the initial budget was approved, pushing up the overall cost.
      When the new site went live, there were many reports of technical issues. One BBC insider told the Scotsman: “We’re having major problems getting things to work at Pacific Quay. The systems don’t operate as they should and it means that it takes more people and more time to get the programmes and items on air.”
    • Many of the issues were reported to have been related to new digital computer systems that replaced videotape and other manual processes.
    • The concerns about problems with the technology were also highlighted by Pete Murray, the NUJ’s BBC Scotland spokesman: “The problems are chronic and daily,” he said. “There have been occasions where we have been flying by the seat of our pants because of technical problems and we have been very close to having to take programmes off air. Our attitude is that it is not worth putting the health and safety of our members at risk to keep a broadcast on the air, but increasingly that is what it is coming down to. It is getting very stressful.” He went on: “The changeover has come at a time when the BBC has just sold off its technology arm and put its IT support division out to contract. When things go wrong, as they do in many cases, it is really hard for us to nail somebody and ask for immediate help.”
    • The official line from BBC Scotland played down the extent of the problems: “New systems need to bed down, but I would stress that glitches have been minor and the state-of-the-art technology is delivering content with no disruption to output.”
    • Atholl Duncan, head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, added: “It is remarkable that such a complex move from the old world of Queen Margaret Drive to the leading-edge technologies of Pacific Quay has been completed with so few problems.”

   

  • MEDIA CITY, SALFORD (OPENED: 2011)
    • Cost: £224m.
    • In late-May 2007, the BBC confirmed that it had finally agreed terms with the MediaCity UK developers and that five of its departments would move to a 200-acre site at Salford Quays, which would be home to the UK’s first purpose-built media city. The £200m development would see 1,500 people – from BBC Children’s, BBC Children’s Learning, BBC Sport, BBC Radio 5 Live and parts of BBC Future Media and Technology – move to the new site. 800 staff based at the BBC’s existing central Manchester HQ would also make the move to Media City.
    • The then BBC director-general Mark Thompson said: “I’m delighted that the BBC’s vision for its expanded presence in the north of England is now firmly on the road to reality. I’m excited by the plans and believe they have a key part to play in the BBC’s future.

      “The modern, multimedia broadcast and production centre in Salford will shift the BBC’s centre of gravity away from London, bringing a range of creative benefits to us and, I hope, helping us to better reflect and represent the whole of the UK.”
    • The move to Salford was a direct response to a 2004 statement by the government that a large portion of the London-based operation should move to other parts of the country. In 2011, the BBC made this statement (note: the Salford Quays development is now referred to in terms of the ‘BBC North’ operation): “The BBC is paid for by the whole of the UK and needs to better reflect the breadth and depth of our culture and be representative of all those who fund it. BBC North will help meet the commitment to our audiences to get as close to them as possible. Twenty-five per cent of licence fee payers live in the North – from Liverpool to Newcastle – yet currently only 8% of network programmes are made in the region. Our audiences in the North have told us that they feel less well served and represented and a new creative hub in the North will help redress this balance.”
    • As a means of attempting to address a lot of negative comment about the BBC North project in the press, the BBC issued a press release, which included the following four key benefits of the venture:
      • Creative Dividend: increasing the quality of all the BBC’s content using the latest technology for the benefit of all audiences on all platforms.
      • Reputational Benefit: driving up approval for the BBC in the North of England.
      • Economic Benefit: creating a world-class talent pool in the North, strengthening and supporting the region’s independent production and media companies and making a positive contribution to the regional and national economy.
      • Value for Money: making BBC North one of the BBC’s most efficient and cost-effective centres and demonstrating value for money to the licence fee payer.
    • Addressing the question of cost, the press release had this to say: “The cost of the move to Media City UK is £200m, which includes the recent additions such as BBC Breakfast. This figure represents the cost of the transition project, relocation and redundancy packages for staff, and the installation of new technology.

      “We have committed to recouping the cost over twenty years and if possible will reduce the payback period significantly by fully occupying our more cost-effective buildings and introducing more efficient ways of working.

      “The National Audit Office report on BBC Estates quoted a figure of £877m. However, this covers the 20-year running costs of the five departments moving to Salford Quays and includes lease costs and ongoing operational and technology costs. If these departments remain in London their running costs will be higher. The costs of running Salford Quays are lower because there are significant savings in sharing studios, phasing out London Weighting, occupying energy-efficient buildings and selling existing properties. These savings will be invested in programme making.”
    • Media City is also home to a large ITV operation.
    • In October 2013, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the scale of some staff relocation allowances was “difficult to justify”. More than 850 staff relocated to Salford. All relocations had been completed by April 2012. The committee’s report said relocation costs for 11 staff members exceeded £100,000 per person, with one costing £150,000. The average relocation cost was £28,000. However, the committee concluded that “the BBC completed most aspects of the move to Salford successfully”. But it acknowledged that, in the longer-term, the success of the move would depend on the BBC “achieving the wider benefits it promised.”
    • The PAC report expressed concern that the BBC may become overly dependent on the Peel Group – the property giant which owns the BBC Salford buildings. And the decision to sign a 10-year contract for TV studios was flagged as “risky”, given the pace of technology change. Any positives from the report were overshadowed by the effective writing off of £100m – the cost of the Digital Media Initiative, a failed BBC IT project.
    • From the first announcement of the plan to move to Salford, the project had been the subject of much criticism by various figures within the industry.

    

  • ROATHLOCK DRAMA VILLAGE, CARDIFF (OPENED: SEPTEMBER 2011)
    • In 2008, the BBC made a commitment to double network television production in Wales.
    • The 170,000 sq ft HD-ready studio complex was constructed and fitted out in 13 months, making it the quickest execution of a project of this size within the BBC.
    • The complex has been home to Doctor Who, Casualty and Pobol y Cwm. Other programmes accommodated here include: Upstairs Downstairs and Sherlock.
    • The site boasted nine HD studios.
    • Speaking at the official opening on 12th March 2012, the Welsh first minister said: “This studio complex is a major step forward for the creative industries in Wales and will be home to famous drama productions that are viewed across the world.

      “The creative industries, from TV, film and theatre are of major importance to our economy, supporting jobs and investment and the Welsh government is determined for this to continue.

      “BBC Cymru Wales’ Roath Lock is a symbol of what Wales can achieve and the bright future we have ahead of us.”

     

  • BBC TELEVISION CENTRE, LONDON (CLOSED: MARCH 2013; REOPENED: SEPTEMBER 2017)
    • In October 2007, BBC director-general Mark Thompson announced that BBC Television Centre would be sold off, as part of efforts to address a £2bn shortfall in funding. A BBC spokeswoman said: “This is a full-scale disposal of BBC Television Centre and we won’t be leasing it back.” The target date for completion of the sale was the end of the 2012/13 financial year.
    • The 14-acre site was officially put on the market in June 2011.
    • On 16th July 2012, the BBC agreed to sell the site to Stanhope plc for £200m. Although some initial estimates were as high as £300m, the lower sale price is thought to have been partly due to high levels of asbestos in the building.
    • The occupants of Television Centre gradually relocated to other sites. BBC News was one of the last departments to move out. The building closed on 31st March 2013.
    • The redevelopment of the site would see the construction of flats, office space, restaurants and a hotel. Although many of the studios would be demolished, Studios 1, 2 and 3 – as well as the basement and some offices – would be refurbished and leased back to the BBC on a 15-year lease. This contradicts the BBC’s original press announcement, in 2007, where they stated the sale would be a full-scale disposal and they would not be leasing back any part of Television Centre.
    • In October 2014, Private Eye magazine claimed the BBC had spent £60m removing broadcast equipment from the building and that the new lease arrangement would cost the BBC £12m per year.
    • The planning, demolition and construction process took a lot longer than originally planned. The go-live date for Studios 1, 2 and 3 was moved out from autumn 2014 to autumn 2017.
    • Demolition work began in February 2015.
    • There has been much criticism of the sell-off of BBC Television Centre. In February 2015, Phillip Schofield commented: “It is utterly shocking, it’s outrageous, it’s a critically appalling decision. It’s an amazing building. London is desperately short of studio space. You can’t find a studio. It’s purpose-built, it does everything you want television to do, so why don’t we pull it down. It’s criminal.”
    • Studios 1, 2 and 3 were officially reopened on 1st September 2017. From April 2018, studios 2 and 3 were fully booked by ITV Studios through until 2023, due to the closure of The London Studios; these studios are now home to Good Morning Britain, Lorraine, This Morning and Loose Women. Studio 1 has already hosted programmes such as The Graham Norton Show, Mock the Week and The Last Leg.
    • In January 2015, Margaret Hodge, the chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee (which oversees the work of the National Audit Office (NAO)), expressed concern that the sale of BBC Television Centre was financed by overseas investors using Luxembourg-based investment companies. Such finance structures were widely believed to have been used to avoid paying tax. Ms Hodge said that both the BBC and BBC Trust were aware of the finance arrangement and had obtained legal advice which concluded the arrangement was “commercially appropriate”.

     

  • BBC BROADCASTING HOUSE, PLYMOUTH (OPENED: 2016)
    • Formally opened in summer 2016, this was a complete refurbishment of an existing facility.
    • Cost: £4m.
    • When it opened, BBC South West had the most high-tech news production operation of all of the BBC English regions.
    • 17: the total number of TV studios, radio studios, galleries, graphic suites and edit suites.

   

  • NEW BBC WALES HQ, CARDIFF (DUE TO OPEN: OCTOBER 2019)
    • Estimated cost: £120m.
    • Construction work on the new Central Square complex completed in April 2018 and BBC Wales took possession of the building.
    • Technical fitout has commenced and will run for 18 months.
    • The first staff are expected to move into the new building in October 2019. The transfer of staff from the existing HQ is due to be completed by the end of Q1 2020.
    • Speaking in April 2018, BBC Wales director, Rhodri Talfan Davies said: “The media landscape is changing at a speed never seen before – and Central Square is a crucial part of our strategy to modernise and renew BBC Wales and to ensure we serve all our audiences across Wales.

      “Whilst I have lots of happy memories of Llandaff, the place is being held together with proverbial string at the moment.

      “The technology is outdated, the premises are dilapidated – we need to go to somewhere that enables us to broadcast with real confidence.”
    • A report by BOP Consulting has reasserted that the new broadcasting centre will contribute £1.1bn to the economy of the Cardiff city region over the next decade – a finding it previously reached in 2015.
    • The new building will also house S4C transmission staff and will offer regular access to people within the independent production sector.
    • It will be the first broadcasting centre in the UK to use internet protocol (IP) technology, which will allow devices around the building to recognise and talk to each other.
    • Facts about the Central Square complex:
      • The internal size of Central Square over several floors is 155,582 sq ft.
      • It is roughly half the size of BBC Wales’ Llandaff sites.
      • The excavated material from the site would fill 19 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
      • There is more glass in the building than the glasshouse roof at the National Botanic Garden for Wales in Carmarthenshire.
      • Rain water harvesting tanks at Central Square collect enough rainwater for 27,000 toilet flushes.

A review of the BBC’s estate was carried out by the National Audit Office (NAO) in 2014; its findings were published in January 2015. Amyas Morse, head of the NAO commented: “The BBC has made good progress in upgrading its estate but it will need to press ahead with its plans to make better use of space to achieve value for money. The BBC will also need to maintain enough flexibility in its leasehold and freehold portfolio to allow its estate to adapt quickly to the changing needs of an organisation operating in a fast-changing sector.”

In response to the NAO report, Nick Prettejohn, BBC Trust chair of the Value for Money Committee issued the following statement: “The BBC has reduced the size of the estate by almost a third while at the same time adding new TV channels and radio stations, and modernising its buildings. These are significant achievements and I am pleased that the NAO have recognised the good progress made. Today’s report also gives a clear steer on where further improvements can be made and the Trust will continue to track progress to make sure the NAO’s recommendations are implemented in full.”

The key NAO findings:

  • The BBC has reduced the size of its estate, which has helped improve efficiency.
  • Some buildings that the BBC had earmarked for improvement, because they are outdated and inefficient, have still to be upgraded.
  • The BBC did not meet the target it set in 2008 to cap estate costs at 6% of licence fee income by 2013.
  • The BBC did not appear to use the 6% target to manage its overall estate costs and it has since adopted a revised target: to keep any increases in estate costs below increases in the retail price index.
  • The BBC has improved its use of available space.
  • The BBC has identified that it could use its estate more efficiently and has set ambitious targets.
  • Within the past 15 years, the BBC took out long leases, which it cannot surrender until the 2020s or 2030s, on properties that it no longer needs, although it could potentially sublet them.
     

Current Utilisation of BBC NI’s Belfast Buildings

Back to the BBC Northern Ireland HQ project. So, we now know that the BBC intends to redevelop the existing BBC Northern Ireland site at Ormeau Avenue in Belfast. It’s not a huge site and given that fairly significant redevelopment/construction work will be required on that site, how do they intend to maintain services whilst all this work is in progress?

First, we need to get a sense of the scale of the current operation, the mix of facilities at the Ormeau Avenue site and the general utilisation of current building facilities.
 

Television Studios

STUDIO 1: 2,200 sq ft. Located in Broadcasting House. This studio is not currently in use. In fact, it was originally a large radio studio and would’ve been used for programmes such as BBC Radio 3 lunchtime recitals, which required large groups of musicians. As a television studio, it had previously been the home of BBC news and current affairs programmes such as The View, The Sunday Politics and election coverage. However, the updated BBC Newsline set installed in Studio B in 2016 also now accommodates The View and The Sunday Politics through lighting changes and programme-specific graphics on the large LED screens. In recent years, this studio has been home to special editions of Newsnight, as well as some local sport programmes.

STUDIO A: 5,000 sq ft. Located at Blackstaff House. This studio is the largest, purpose-built television studio in Northern Ireland. It’s currently home to the Nolan TV show, The Blame Game and Spotlight Special as well as Pro14 Rugby away games. Other shows to have occupied this studio in the past include: Give My Head Peace; Ask Rhod Gilbert; Anderson on the Box; The John Daly Show; PK Tonight; Patrick Kielty Almost Live.

In addition to the aforementioned TV programmes, other current/recent studio usage includes: trail shoots; preview screenings; events space; radio sitcoms and panel shows; for hire for recording pilots; for the past few summers, it’s been used as a four-waller for filming the CBBC drama Millie Inbetween, which takes up the studio for approximately four months at a time.

The studio does not have a dedicated production control room – instead, one of BBC NI’s outside broadcast lorries provides the required technical facilities. A retractable seating bank is available and can accommodate up to 290 people. Other facilities and equipment in support of this studio include: lighting gallery; scenery docks and storage; motorised scenery hoists; lighting barrels; drive-in loading dock; onsite parking; seven dressing rooms; a make-up room; costume area; green room; a small kitchen area.

STUDIO B: 2,100 sq ft. Located in the TV Block (the 1984 extension, to the rear of Broadcasting House). This has been home to BBC Northern Ireland’s flagship local television news programme since autumn 1984, when the studio was opened, as part of a £5m extension of the main building. It was the first purpose-built television studio in Northern Ireland. In early 2016, a new, permanent set was installed for BBC Newsline, giving the programme a similar look to the national news in London. The studio also has a green screen section. This is used to create virtual sets for various programmes, as well as for elaborate visual journalism. BBC Newsline utilises the green screen for a virtual set for its sports segment – on air, the virtual set merges seamlessly into the real set. The green screen set-up (which includes motion tracking technology for the cameras) is also used for the Final Score programme on Saturdays and the ‘commentator’s corner’ segment of The View; it’s also used extensively for local/general election night programmes.

STUDIO C: 600 sq ft. Located in the TV Block. Basic green screen studio, used for local weather forecasts and for the Thursday night ‘BBC Newsline’ programme, when The View is occupying Studio B.
  

Outside Broadcast Vehicles

NOTE: much of this data is over five years old. Some of the equipment listed here may since have been decommissioned/superseded.

Outside broadcast vehicles are mostly based at Blackstaff House.

NIHD1: this vehicle provides a comprehensive production package: a spacious production control room with working space, incorporating separate vision mixing, audio mixing and EVS/VT areas.

This vehicle is used by Studio A, Blackstaff House. It’s also used for local sports events. It was also used outside of Northern Ireland, for one of the live episodes of ‘EastEnders’.

Video facilities:

  • Sony MVS-8000 vision mixer.
  • 4 MEs, 68 inputs,48 outputs and DME.
  • Up to 16 on-board camera channels with full fibre connectivity.
  • Sony HDC 1500 high definition cameras (range of lens as required).
  • EVS (wired for 4 as required).
  • HD VTR (wired for 6 as required).
  • Quartz Xenon digital video router.

Audio facilities:

  • Calrec Omega audio mixing desk.
  • 48 stereo and 64 mono channels and up to 24 surround channels.
  • 32 AES and 96 analogue inputs.
  • 32 AES and 64 analogue stereo outputs.
  • Hydra Audio Networking fibres each providing 48 inputs and 16 returns.
  • Riedel ARTIST intercoms matrix with sophisticated digital talkback.
  • Microphones as required.

Graphics facilities:

  • 2 Viz RT graphic stations.

Production facilities:

  • Spacious production gallery with seating for 9.
  • Custom-built configurable monitor stack.
  • 12 multi-viewers with quad splits.
  • UMD (Under Monitor Displays) on every monitor.
  • Preview monitors as required.

Chassis:

  • 13m in length.
  • Full-length, double expanding sides to 4.4m along.
  • Air conditioning.
  • 3-phase supply providing 125 amps.

NISCV1: this is a multi-purpose audio vehicle, designed to provide high quality digital mixes for both live broadcasts and recordings. Based around a Yamaha PM1 digital desk, this facility has been used for a range of radio and television programming, including ‘Proms in the Park’, festivals such as Oxegen, Electric Picnic, Belsonic and T-Vital, and comedy and current affairs output.

Technical specification:

  • Yamaha PM1D digital desk with 8 internal FX engines.
  • 160 patchable microphone inputs.
  • Capable of simultaneously mixing 80 microphones, 16 mono line
  • inputs, and 8 stereo line inputs.
  • TC electronic system 6,000 reverb.
  • Monitoring on Harbeth monitor 30s, with PMC AML1s available on request.
  • LX4 fibre optic stage-box system, offering 48 mic/line inputs, 16 returns, 1 composite video.
  • Pyramix multi-track, multi format digital recorder.
  • Sadie editor/recorder.
  • 2 Fostex CD recorders.
  • 2 Tascam compact Flash recorders.
  • 2 CD players.

NI3: designed for smaller outside broadcast jobs. The on board microwave link makes it suitable for live broadcasts. Although compact, it includes features normally associated with larger vehicles. 4 Grass Valley LDK 200 cameras are available.

Technical specification:

  • Philips DD 10F, 12-input vision mixer.
  • Chroma keyer.
  • 2 linear keyers (one upstream, one down).
  • Image store.
  • Integrated colour corrector.
  • Vision stack: 15 LCD monitors, 4 10-inch monitors (widescreen switchable).
  • Up to 4 Grass Valley LDK 200 full facilities cameras.
  • 2 VT positions.
  • Total power Consumption 8 KW.
  • 2 PAL – SDI synchronisers
  • 2 SDI synchronisers
  • 2 embedders
  • 2 de-embedders
  • 2 VT machines with ISO switching available.
  • 2-channel HDD recorder (Raven) with SxS card reader
  • Facilities for graphics such as Viz.
  • 16-channel Soundcraft mixer.
  • 4-channel compressor.
  • 24-channel Telex intercom.
  • Full duplex radio talkback channel.
  • Cellular phone.
  • Glensound commentator unit.
     

Television Playout

PRESENTATION A: located in Broadcasting House. Used by the trails department as an edit suite. 3 edit desks available. This suite was formerly used for playout of BBC Choice Northern Ireland.

PRESENTATION B: located in Broadcasting House. General purpose production edit suite.

PRESENTATION C: located in Broadcasting House. Used for playout of BBC One Northern Ireland.

PRESENTATION D: located in Broadcasting House. Used for playout of BBC Two Northern Ireland.

PRESENTATION E: located in Blackstaff House. Back-up playout suite. However, this facility and associated apparatus rooms are largely unused.
 

Radio Studios

NOTE: much of this data is over five years old. Some of the equipment listed here may since have been decommissioned/superseded.

STUDIO 1: see above. Was repurposed as a television studio but is now largely unused.

STUDIO 2: no longer exists. May have been based on the fourth floor of Broadcasting House at one point before making way for television continuity suites.

STUDIO 3: located in Broadcasting House. This studio has been specifically designed for radio drama, readings, education productions and small acoustic music groups. Technical spec includes:

  • A Calrec 28-channel multi-track sound desk.
  • Each channel on the desk has a clean-feed and talkback.
  • Pyramix digital multi-track recording and editing systems.
  • Digital audio workstations; Dalet, Sadie Radia, Adobe Audition.
  • TC Electronic, Lexicon and Yamaha reverb.
  • A comprehensive selection of high end broadcast microphones.
  • CD, CD R.

STUDIO 4: located in the TV Block. Used for Good Morning Ulster, Talkback and Evening Extra.

STUDIO 4A: located in the TV Block. Used for news bulletins.

STUDIO 5: located in Broadcasting House. This is a general purpose studio. Home to Nolan, The Arts Show and other talk programmes. The technical spec includes:

  • A Calrec 28-channel sound desk.
  • Dalet and Sadie Radia digital recording and editing systems.
  • Phone box allowing the production to take to air up to 6 live telephone contributions simultaneously while stacking other callers.
  • Access to ISDN, Zepher, Comrex, Skype.
  • Two ISDN units located in the studio cubicle.
  • Yamaha reverb.
  • A comprehensive selection of high end broadcast microphones.
  • CD, CD R.
  • Webcam.

STUDIO 6: no longer exists.

STUDIO 7: back-up studio based in Blackstaff House.

STUDIO 8: this is actually a suite of 4 studios, located in Broadcasting House. Radio Ulster continuity is based here. The space is also utilised for various live and pre-recorded programmes, including small live music sessions. Prior to the addition of the TV Block in 1984, this was a TV studio and was used, for example, for Scene Around Six.
 

Admin/Office/Catering/Management Functions

These functions are mostly accommodated within the red-bricked Office Block extension to the right of the original Broadcasting House building. Functions/departments housed here:

  • Technology Support Centre.
  • Radio Ulster.
  • Music/Arts.
  • Irish Language.
  • Programme Commissioning.
  • Recruitment.
  • Legal and Contracts.
  • Senior Management.
  • Sport.
  • Canteen.

The following functions/departments are to be found peppered throughout the other buildings:

  • Information and Archives (Blackstaff House).
  • Training rooms (Blackstaff House).
  • Network programming – production staff (Blackstaff House).
  • Some News and Politics staff (Broadcasting House).
  • Some Radio Ulster offices (Broadcasting House).
  • Network Current Affairs (e.g., Panorama, BBC Three documentaries) (Broadcasting House).
  • Marketing, Communication and Audience (incorporating: Press Office, Media Planning, Programme Scheduling, Marketing, Trails, Television Continuity) (Broadcasting House).
     

Miscellaneous

SCENERY DOCK: based in the TV Block. With most TV output now making use of the fixed and virtual sets in Studio B, the scenery dock is not as heavily utilised as it once was.

OLD TV CONTINUITY: largely unused. Occasionally put to use as a training room. Was also used as a temporary news gallery for Studio B when the main gallery was being upgraded to HD.

EDIT SUITES FOR NETWORK PROGRAMMING: located in Blackstaff House. 4 edit suites available, to service programmes such as The One Show, Points of View, Wanted Down Under and other daytime output.

OTHER TECHNICAL FACILITIES: Broadcasting House also includes a dubbing theatre, old TK facilities and several PP edit suites.

CAR PARKING FACILITIES: none as such at the Ormeau Avenue site. The nearby Blackstaff House facility does have a parking area; however, it is pretty much fully occupied – accommodating the OB fleet and shift workers.
 

Conclusions

From what we can gather, Broadcasting House, the TV Block and Office Block are currently well utilised – probably close to 100%. Blackstaff House is possibly somewhere in the region of 80% utilisation. So, the good news is there aren’t large chunks of prime real estate sitting unused.  The BBC Executive response to the 2015 NAO report quoted total capacity in Belfast as 800 people, with 709 people on site (91% capacity).  The report also states “the BBC plans to reduce the size of its estate in Belfast and Cardiff rather than increase occupancy.”  This no doubt did not help dampen the long-running speculation about the future of the Blackstaff site. 

The Belfast building project – like other BBC building projects over the last 15 years or so – is primarily concerned with making better use of the land the BBC currently owns: getting the buildings to a place where they better reflect and accommodate the significant changes in technology that have taken place in recent decades and also allow better collaboration amongst staff. The BBC has also been making a big thing of making their buildings more accessible to audiences – it’ll be interesting to see how this is factored into the revamped Belfast site.

Of course, there’s been absolutely no information about building plans. However, even the superficial information that has been provided would suggest that major renovation/construction work is required at the Ormeau Avenue site.  The BBC Executive response (January 2015) to the NAO report acknowledges this:

“Whilst there is still work to be done in some buildings, most significantly in Belfast…”

“Some buildings that the BBC has earmarked for improvement, because they are outdated and inefficient, have still to be upgraded. Sites that have not yet been upgraded include Cardiff and Belfast. These ageing sites require extensive maintenance and their design and layout is not well-suited to the BBC’s current needs. The BBC plans to relocate its Cardiff operations to a new site in 2018. However, it has still to determine how it will address inefficiencies at its site in Belfast.”

“The BBC still has some ageing sites, including Cardiff, Bristol and Belfast, which require extensive maintenance. The relatively poor quality of the infrastructure at some of these sites has disrupted programme-making and put transmission at risk…”

With not much in the way of spare real estate at either of the Belfast sites, it’s difficult to understand how the BBC can avoid having to pay to temporarily relocate staff to non-BBC sites elsewhere in Belfast, whilst construction work is in progress.  Well, that’s if they truly wish to go to town on the Ormeau Avenue site and properly renovate it.  If, on the other hand, they opt for a half-hearted refit, well, that changes things somewhat.

And I finish where I started – questioning the lack of detail about the building project.  From what I can glean, it would appear that no-one really seems to have any idea what the plan is.  Which really does beg the question – how was the £77m figure arrived at?  Was it just the amount that London was willing to make available and Belfast just needs to make it work?  As we’ve seen, BBC building projects are often not without problem and controversy is never usually too far away.  This one will doubtless be any different.  As we’ve seen, Belfast has been singled out as a particularly problematic site. Whilst its counterparts in Glasgow and Cardiff were treated to purpose-built facilities at new locations, it seems a little odd that Belfast is having to make do with its existing city centre site – albeit, a reworked version of it. I can’t help but feel BBC NI is being forced to accomplish a very complex task, within difficult constraints. Reworking an outdated site – which includes listed elements – could arguably work out more expensive than creating a new, purpose-built facility at a new location. There’s the potential cost of temporarily relocating staff and standing up temporary technical facilities during construction work and the complex nature of the project may result in compromises. In 5 years from now, standing on Ormeau Avenue, I wonder if I’ll be able to tell the difference. I hope I’m proved spectacularly wrong.

NOTE: as of late-November 2018, there is still no sign of any construction work at the Ormeau Avenue site.  The images of Broadcasting House featured in the original version of this article have since been replaced by more up-to-date images (taken in November 2018).