Simon Thomsett, the chief executive of the Fairfield Halls, has spoken openly against the council’s proposed two-year closure as part of a long overdue multi-million-pound overhaul for the 50-year-old arts complex, expressing the fear that lost income and grants could make it impossible to re-open.
“It means recruitment, it means getting a skills base, finding people who know how to do this kind of thing. It takes quite a lot of time and it is an expensive process.”
There is no dispute that the Fairfield Halls, which opened in 1962, is in desperate need of refurbishment. The disagreement between the board of the Fairfield Halls and Croydon Council is over the management of the project, with Tony Newman, the Labour leader of the council, enthusiastically backing complete closure next year, as the Halls and neighbouring College Green become part of a speculative property development.
Last week’s council cabinet meeting passed the closure plan, and with it the redundancy of the Fairfield Halls’ 70 full-time and 140 part-time staff. It was revealed, though, that there is no budget provision for the Halls’ artistic programme once it re-opens.
Newman also sought to mislead the meeting when he said that the board of the Fairfield Halls had not written to the cabinet to express serious reservations about the planned closure. In fact, and as Newman undoubtedly knew, the letter had come from the Fairfield’s CEO, Thomsett, and was sent to all the members of Newman’s cabinet. Elected 18 months ago on a platform of a more open and transparent council, Newman has forbidden his cabinet members from releasing Thomsett’s letter to the public.
Thomsett – who came to Croydon with a considerable professional reputation of over-seeing successful theatre refurbishments – prefers a phased redevelopment, which would allow some continuity of their offer in the concert hall, the Ashcroft Theatre and Arnhem Gallery, maintain some cash-flow, and avoid more than 100 redundancies.
A two-year closure would deny him and his organisation all of that. “You’ve got to find your audiences again and if you lose the cultural offer for too long, they go find something else to do, they get out of the habit of coming here.
“I would fear that loss. I think it would be quite a serious loss and difficult to regain. I think that needs to be considered.”
The council’s proposed Fairfields closure will also coincide with the complete closure and re-build of the Whitgift Centre, as Hammerson and Westfield undertake their £1 billion super-mall project, while Wellesley Road, the six-lane urban motorway that bisects central Croydon, is also likely to be heavily disrupted by re-routing works to the tram network, undertaken at the behest of Westfield.
Thomsett and the Fairfield board dispute the council’s figures over the development costs – with no provision having been made for the effective moth-balling of the arts business, which has a £4.5 million annual turnover. “The main part of my argument is that doesn’t consider the impact on the business. There are costs attached to re-opening.
“The start-up costs for something of this scale are considerable and certainly my feeling is they would be likely to exceed any possible savings made on the building costs.
“I believe quite strongly that a phased plan is better. I believe potentially overall it would cost less and of course it’s better culturally that you have a continuity of offer while it’s being done.
“Here is a famous institution that provides an important and well-loved service to the borough and to stop that seems to me to be a loss.”
- To read the council’s report on the Fairfield Halls and College Green redevelopment, but not the secret bits, click here
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