In a letter to Croydon Council, the Theatres Trust has welcomed many of the proposals for refurbishing the Fairfield Halls, which is due to close in July for a £30 million refit.
But in the letter the Trust’s planning adviser Ross Anthony highlighted the “unfortunate” two-year closure and the lack of any management or operator confirmed to take on the concert hall, Ashcroft Theatre and Arnhem Gallery when the venue is due to re-open in 2018.
The council, which owns the Halls, opted to save around £5 million in additional costs by not phasing the works, which are going ahead following nearly a year’s negotiations with the trustees of Fairfield (Croydon) Ltd, the charity which currently operates the venue. The council also bailed out the trust with around £800,000 towards the costs of paying off creditors and its redundancy settlement for the Halls’ 70 full-time and 80 part-time staff.
The Theatres Trust’s intervention is important, since it is offers a cool objectivity which has been missing from the opportunistic Tory-backed political local campaign, which was established by several people with vested interests in maintaining their current arrangements with the Fairfield Halls and its £90,000-per-year chief executive, Simon Thomsett.
The Theatres Trust’s three-page letter is generally very positive about the proposals, and offers support in achieving the best outcome for the refurbishment.
The Theatres Trust, established by Act of Parliament 40 years ago, is the national advisory public body for theatres, providing statutory planning advice on theatre buildings and use. The view it takes of some of the design issues to be conducted outside the Fairfield Halls ought, therefore, to be considered carefully.
Anthony’s letter to Croydon Council begins: “The Trust welcomes the overall objectives of this scheme to modernise and refurbish Fairfield Halls to strengthen it as the key cultural destination in the region…
“However, the Trust is concerned the scheme is being advanced, and significant capital has been committed, without the involvement of a theatre/venue operator. The Council must be sure the scheme meets the needs of the end user, particularly if a commercial operator is to be sought, otherwise the viability of the Halls in the long run may be compromised. The Trust strongly recommends a new operator is selected, or the existing operator is retained, and is involved in the design before proceeding with the scheme.
“In terms of the overall concept, we support many of the refurbishment proposals for the Halls, including the reinstatement of original features, fittings, and materials; the reorganisation of the forecourt, box office, lobby and mezzanine balconies to open up these spaces; and the installation of new lifts to provide full access. The comprehensive repair and refurbishment of the building’s exterior and creation of additional roof terraces and public spaces are also welcomed, as is the intention to activate the secondary frontages.
“We note the intent for the concert hall is to preserve and enhance the acoustics and technical facilities to improve its use for amplified events without compromising the orchestral acoustic qualities it is renowned for.
“The staging limitations in the Ashcroft Theatre are also recognised and we agree the wider dock doors and proposed extensions to the stage house and fly tower will improve the way the theatre operates and the types of shows it can stage.”
The Theatre Trust then offers some expert advice on the scheme’s proposals:
“We would recommend further consideration is given to maintaining the draught lobbies at the main entrance for audience comfort, and not reducing the number of entry doors which may impede audience flow, given the size of the venue.
“In the Ashcroft Theatre, we recommend the proposed column in the middle of the new stage wing is relocated to maximise the flexibility of the wing and the movement of sets, etc. We also question the loss of the fire escape at the front of the Ashcroft Theatre’s auditorium (house left) and are concerned the reduction in fire escapes may limit the number of people permitted in the audience and this warrants further consideration.”
It is in the arrangements of the service yard, approach road and the buildings near the Halls – which currently restrict the size of trucks bringing equipment to the venue, and therefore the scale of modern shows it is able to stage – where the Trust offers further important suggestions.
“The Trust’s main concerns relate the proposed changes to the get in area access and the service yard, and the lack of detail about proposed Building 7 (the new college building) to be built over the service yard.
“Given Building 7 is to be attached to the Halls and largely built over Halls’ service yard, the Trust suggests full detailed plans, not outline plans, should be submitted in order to establish the full impact of the proposed college building on the operation of the Halls, particularly as few of the floor plans for the Halls show the outline of Building 7 and appear to be designed without consideration of Building 7…
“The Trust also has reservations about the practicalities and operational realties of the use of the new service yard and strongly encourages an advisory peer review be undertaken to ensure the alterations to the service yard and get in arrangements are feasible, preferably in collaboration with the future venue operator.
“While we acknowledge vehicle lifts would vastly improve access for deliveries and equipment to the concert hall, the proposed rearrangement of the yard does not appear to be practical in terms of access for 16.5m lorries to each of the venues… The reduction in width of the access road reduces this manoeuvring space, confining movement entirely to the yard and reducing vehicle parking and waiting areas, and the new vehicle lifts will not be fully accessible when the Ashcroft loading dock is in use. Access is further complicated by the proposed location of the loading dock to the new underground gallery space…
“The Trust therefore recommends reviewing the get in arrangements in the service yard and the relationship with, and impact of, Building 7.”
In his letter, dated earlier this month, Anthony repeats the call for a phased development scheme to be reconsidered, although subsequently, even the chair of the Fairfield trustees, Kate Vennell, has gone on the record to state that this is “no longer useful”.
The Fairfield redevelopment has yet to go before the council’s planning committee for approval, and although the Labour group at the Town Hall which is backing the redevelopment has a majority on that committee, the opposition Conservatives are threatening a last-ditch attempt to de-rail the project, potentially delaying it by months. “We’ve got something in mind,” a Katharine Street Tory told Inside Croydon, but refused to elaborate.
The Theatre Trust’s recommendations include an offer of help to set-up an advisory review of the proposals, to ensure that the scheme will deliver a long-term solution as a modern arts venue.
“Whilst supportive of the need to revitalise Fairfield Halls and many of the alterations proposed, the Theatres Trust urges the Council to consider the end user and involve the future theatre/venue operator at this design stage, and to review the access arrangements in the service yard and the relationship between the Halls and Building 7 to ensure the venue can continue to be viable into the future. The Trust would be willing to help facilitate an advisory peer review.”
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