Kate Vennell, the chair of the charity board which runs the Fairfield Halls, has today dismissed any further calls for a phased redevelopment of Croydon’s arts venue, which is due to close in July to allow a £30 million council-funded refurbishment programme to begin.“The discussion about phasing is no longer a useful one,” Vennell told Inside Croydon.
Vennell was speaking following a meeting of the Tory-backed Save Our Fairfield organisation which was staged at the Halls on Wednesday – two months after the charity which Vennell chairs accepted £800,000 from the council towards the costs of the redundancy programme to allow the long overdue refurbishment to get underway.
The meeting organisers, who still try to claim to be apolitical, made much of the absence from the meeting of anyone from the council. What they failed to mention was that no one from Fairfield (Croydon) Ltd, the charity which actually runs the Fairfield Halls, had been invited to speak at the meeting.
The Save Our Fairfield campaign has opposed the closure, calling for a phased redevelopment – as favoured by Dudley Mead, a former Fairfield trustee and deputy leader of Croydon Conservatives, and by Simon Thomsett, the Fairfield Halls’ £90,000-a-year CEO who is among the 149 staff (according to Charity Commission records) who will be seeking new jobs.
Those proposing a more costly phased redevelopment have expressed the fear that the re-opened venue would struggle to re-build its audiences.
None of those arguing for a phased redevelopment have suggested any reasonable scheme to fund the additional £5 million, at least, that it would cost to keep the venue open during the refit.The Fairfield Halls is owned by Croydon Council, who lease it to the charitable trust to operate as an arts venue and convention centre. Plans to refurbish the venue have existed for almost a decade, but were stalled after the Conservatives took control of the Town Hall in 2006. Labour included a refurbishment pledge in its 2014 local election manifesto, and began negotiations with Vennell and the trustees more than a year ago (as is clear from the company records).
Vennell says she “deeply respects” the depth of feeling by the Halls’ audiences who “hugely value what we’ve offered”. But she signalled that it is time to get on with the work of upgrading the 1960s-built Fairfield Halls to be fit for the 21st Century.
“My focus for the charity is now moving forward in constructive conversations with the council about the vision for the future, our potential to be the operator and our interim activity,” Vennell said.
Vennell welcomed the arrival of the council’s new culture director, Paula Murray, who formally began her secondment with Croydon last week. “I’m pleased with the good engagement I’m getting from the council on this from both Timothy Godfrey…” the Labour councillor and cabinet member for arts, culture and sport, “and Paula Murray.
“For us the discussion about phasing is no longer a useful one.”
Details of the council bail-out for Fairfield Halls staff have not been published – Town Hall sources suggest that the Halls directors won’t allow it – but some of the more lurid misinformation discussed at Wednesday’s meeting, such as the Halls having to sell its two Steinway grand pianos to meet its redundancy bills, have been dismissed.The issue of the Halls’ £4.6 million pension liability remains – the business is technically insolvent, according to its own accounts – but a modernised venue offers the prospect of a more more commercially successful future.
“I’m pleased the council has bailed out the Fairfield Halls with a cash injection,” Godfrey said today. “This ensures that they are in a better financial state than they have been in years, pay all their suppliers, and give confidence to audiences in the coming months.
“Such a major project is never easy. However, choosing to complete the £30 million project in as short a time as possible ensures the Halls are reopened in just two years as well as saving tax-payers £8 million in the extra costs involved in phasing the works.”
The council says it has set out its position fully here, while the planning applications for the various works proposed around College Green are available here, presenting a whole set of other questions about the associated developments.
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