Does Town Hall’s missing link point to another public sell-off?

Might Croydon’s Grade II-Listed Town Hall be the next public asset which the borough’s Conservative administration wants to flog-off?

Could this Grade II piece of public property soon be the next thing Croydon Council flogs off to cover-up for their mismanagement of public funds?

Could this Grade II piece of public property soon be the next thing Croydon Council flogs off to cover-up for their mismanagement of public funds?

Rumours have been circulating Katharine Street since the virtual closure of the Clocktower arts complex nearly three years ago. The talk has been of a scheme to convert the red-brick epitome of Victorian municipal governance into some (more) top-end flats and a hotel. And it can all be pushed through with the greatest of ease because, after all, it would be the council that would have to grant planning permission.

And any such scheme would provide the Tories who have mismanaged our council to find a way towards balancing the £1 billion-worth of debt they have built up since 2006 – a “mere”£13 million from the underhand sale of the Riesco china collection will only go so far. The re-development and sale of our Town Hall might also help to make the ill-considered CURV partnership with John Laing get closer to making a profit.

There are various pointers to suggest that Mike Fisher, the council leader, and his deputies Dudley Mead and Tim Pollard have been considering the closure of the Town Hall to make way for “executive apartments”.

The first indicator is that it is a far from original thought.

The old County Hall on the South Bank of the Thames, once Thatcher abolished the democratically elected GLC because it opposed her, is an example of public property that was sold off at a bargain price to international developers and now, among other things, houses two hotels, one budget and another more up-market.

Bromley Town Hall: less prepossessing than Croydon's fine building, and about to become a hotel and wedding centre

Bromley Town Hall: squat and less prepossessing than Croydon’s fine building, and about to become a hotel and wedding centre

More recently, next door to Croydon, in Bromley, the Conservative-run council there has worked with another development partner, the Cathedral Group, to turn their Grade II-Listed Town Hall (and a far less impressive building than Croydon’s), into a 50-room hotel and wedding centre (yes…).

According to a piece of local corporation corporate tosh called Invest Bromley the Cathedral Group also has a development brief for “Bromley South Central”. In a piece of Philistinism that will be familiar to Croydon residents, they plan to preserve “some” of the Art Deco panelling and staircase – which actually means they are going to trash the majority of the fixtures inside the building – towards providing a hotel with conference centre and restaurant when it is completed by late 2015.

In Croydon, Queen’s Gardens has long been a popular photo location for newly weds after using the registry office. Croydon Council has just never had the wit to offer other services – such as profitably catering for a wedding receptions in the some of the larger committee rooms. Even after Fisher and his cronies have allowed Laings to build on to part of Queen’s Gardens (for more over-priced “luxury” apartments, all with their views over the Croydon Flyover), a hotel and “wedding centre” beside what’s left of the open green space might just be the sort of abuse of erstwhile public property that could appeal to profit-driven multi-billion property developers.

The second indicator was the closure of the David Lean Cinema and other elements of the Clocktower arts complex. Presented then as a cost-cutting exercise – when in fact the arthouse cinema was covering its costs – maybe it was part of a softening up process. To close the Clocktower and sell-off the Town Hall might generate just too much public opposition even for Fisher and his cronies to ignore.

Then there’s been the Town Hall cleansing work that has recently been completed. All paid for by the Council Tax-payers of Croydon. Conveniently. Making the Town Hall look just that bit more attractive to potential hotel operators, and not costing them a penny…

Early architects' drawings of the Croydon Council office scheme clearly show a link bridge from the Town Hall. Where has it gone? And why?

Early architects’ drawings of the Croydon Council office scheme clearly show a link bridge from the Town Hall. Where has it gone? And why?

Another pointer towards what our council might be considering doing with our Town Hall is the footbridge to Fisher’s Folly, the office building that is costing the people of Croydon £140million and is due to open this autumn. Or rather, it is the lack of a footbridge link between the 1895-built Town Hall and the new Glass Palace.

Early drawings of the plans for Fisher’s Folly clearly showed a bridge from the first-floor of the Town Hall, straddling Cost You A Mint Walk, linking the Town Hall with the chamber, the leader’s office and other councillors’ meeting rooms, and the shiny new rooms for the council executive, and their £3million-worth of recently bought furnishings.

It would be an obvious thing to do: no need for council employees or councillors to leave one council building, cross the road and then go through security to enter another office.

But quietly, perhaps hoping no one would notice, and without any explanation, the link bridge has been erased from the scheme. After all, if the Town Hall is to become a 4-star hotel at some point in the future, who’d want council employees walking across to the £100-a-night first-floor suites?

Don’t be surprised if nothing has been mentioned by Croydon Council about selling the Town Hall for re-development. After all, in Croydon’s Riesco Fiasco, our council’s leadership had been having negotiations over that sell-off of public assets for almost a year before they were forced to admit what was going on in secret because Inside Croydon asked some awkward questions.

Last week’s announcement that St Anne House, on Wellesley Road, has been given planning permission – without going before the planning committee – for conversion from empty offices into a hotel could impact negatively on a Town Hall hotel scheme.

Except that St Anne House is to deliver a 144-room Ibis budget hotel. Croydon, and central Croydon particularly, lacks much in the way of better quality hotel space, which could be in demand especially if the Fairfield Halls, rejuvenated at vast public expense, does actually manage to develop its conference business beyond providing the occasional onanistic “Develop Croydon” back-slapping event for the Grey Label PR agency (which Fisher and his mates also make sure is funded by hundreds of thousands of pounds out of our Council Tax).

But the ultimate question, as with so much of our council’s conduct, is this: Is handing over public property to private developers for them to benefit from the profits an appropriate use of the assets of the people of Croydon?

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2 Responses to Does Town Hall’s missing link point to another public sell-off?

  1. Where are the strategic plans?

    I just cannot understand how all this shuffling around of assets can be going on without proper investment appraisal and due diligence. That includes investment into Fairfield Halls; selling off of the Riesco collection; upgrading of the outside of the old Town Hall and so on. It all feels like some flaky one man and a dog operation not the largest London Borough.

    No one seems to be stepping back and thinking strategically about what resources we need to have in place for our rapidly growing population to do more than exist.

  2. Let me give your loyal reader an idea of the standards of management practised by our esteemed council.

    When Taberner House was built the corporate plan was to move all the council’s operations into the one building and dispose of the rest – until someone discovered there was no provision for a council chamber in the new edifice.
    As things turned out, the oversight was a fortunate one for the rest of us, enabling, among other things, the extension of the central library and the creation of a half-decent arts centre – until this bunch of Philistines got its hands on it.

    Any idea of corporate planning, then or now, is optimistic, to say the least.

    The intriguing question is: does Fisher’s Folly have a council chamber, or space to install one?

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