Croydon’s Conservative opposition has renewed demands that the council leader, Labour’s Tony Newman, fulfills his public promise to release a confidential report from consultants Mott MacDonald on the multi-million pound refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls and Croydon College.
The Tories are concerned that plans to close the venerable arts complex for two years while rebuilding work takes place could jeopardise the Concert Hall and Ashcroft Theatre’s future prospects, making it impossible for the venue to recover its current £4.8 million per year turnover.
They claim that complete closure of the Fairfield Halls while the work takes place is unnecessary, but is simply the cheaper option – offering savings of around £4.5million on the overall refurbishment costs compared to a phased operation. The Mott MacDonald consultants’ report is believed to confirm this, and offer alternatives which would make a phased redevelopment possible.
But despite offering to release the report during a recent webcast Town Hall meeting, Newman and senior council officials such as CEO Nathan Elvery have denied access to the document to the Tories, and the public.
“Tony Newman gave his word to a council meeting in the Town Hall chamber that he would make the report available,” one senior Croydon Tory told Inside Croydon. “All we are asking of his supposedly open and transparent administration is that he honours his word.”
Three weeks ago, addressing a rare full meeting of the council in the Town Hall chamber, Newman gave a firm undertaking that the hitherto secret report from development consultants Mott MacDonald “will be made public”.
Despite further baiting and criticism at a scrutiny meeting last Monday, the council leader has so far failed to deliver on his promise, raising further suspicions about the detailed planning for the scheme.
Sean Fitzsimons, the Labour councillor who chaired the scrutiny meeting, managed to put much more information into the public domain than had previously been the case. But he was not impressed by the case made by the Conservative opposition. Fitzsimons said, “No evidence was given by opponents to support their claim the building is at risk of not reopening. Repeating a false claim doesn’t make it true.
“College Green is a huge development site and these plans unlock the value created by new homes, to improve two key institutions,” he said. The council is to borrow £30 million to build the flats on the adjoining site, the proceeds of which will be used to pay for the Fairfield Halls refurbishment and pay-off the loan.
“The refurbishment of Fairfield Halls is not dependent on property speculation,” Fitzsimons maintained. “Future repayment of debt used is.” Which is one way to spin the speculative scheme.
“This rebuild secures the long-term future of the venue. Phased option is more expensive by more than £4.5 million and as the building is to gutted completely, phasing is not practical,” he said. Of course, were everyone able to have sight of the Mott MacDonald report, as was promised by Tony Newman, we’d be able to make up our own minds based on the experts, rather than the opinions of the politicians who are putting the proposals through.
The withholding of the Mott MacDonald report has overtones of what happened over Taberner House, the former council offices, which the previous Tory administration claimed would be too expensive to refurbish, but refused to put into the public domain the consultants’ report which might have exposed the truth of the position.
Instead, what we got is Fisher’s Folly, the new council offices which cost the Croydon Council Tax-payers around £100million over market price.
It is nearly three years since Tony Newman promised to “blow the books open” on the overall £140million costs of Croydon’s council office building. And we’re still waiting for him to fulfill that promise, too.
Fitzsimons did concede that the council is considering handing over the management of the Fairfield Halls to a private venue operator. “There is a question mark as to whether Fairfield (Croydon) Ltd will be the right operator to run the building, post-refurbishment,” he said.
Whether such a handover – effectively a privatisation, from a charity to a private operator – can win the approval of the Charity Commission may be a stern test for the council’s legal department.
In May this year, the council withdrew five councillors – three Labour and two Tory – from the board of the management company, ostensibly to make it less dominated by the Town Hall. According to Fitzsimons, a decision on an operator to run the artistic programme and other activities around the Fairfield Halls “will be taken long before works finish”.
As well as ending the employment of most of the Halls’ staff – 43 full-time and another 200 part-timers or casual employees – a two-year closure during the works and a handing over to a private venue promoter might put the position of the Halls’ chief executive, Simon Thomsett, under threat, too. According to the most recent set of accounts for Croydon (Fairfield) Ltd, it has one member of staff who is paid a salary of between £90,000 and £100,000 per year. It may be fair to assume that this amount is Thomsett’s salary.
Fitzsimons was critical of the Tories who called in the Fairfield decision for scrutiny. “The low point was the question on what will happen to the pantomime,” the scrutiny committee chair said. “The case put forward for phased closure was poor.”
And it’s always Panto season at Croydon Town Hall. Oh yes it is…
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