Croydon Council has awarded a contract worth as much as £180million for an operator to run the Fairfield Halls arts complex for up to 15 years, but cannot name the successful bidder until next Friday in case of any legal challenges.
The decision is contained within a council report released this week, signed off by the Labour-run council’s leader, Tony Newman.
The identity of the successful bidder is contained within the confidential Part B of a “key decision” report, and will only be released on April 21 provided that the decision is not called in by the Labour-controlled scrutiny committee, or – more likely – by 14 Tory councillors, as they seek to score some cheap political points by delaying the appointment process.
The council-owned Fairfield Halls include a concert hall, Ashcroft Theatre and Arnhem Gallery. The venues “went dark” last July for the first time since the complex was opened more than 50 years ago, so that they can undergo a much-needed £30million refurbishment. The closure also marked the winding up of the Fairfield Croydon Ltd, which had been managing the venues (and not making a very good job of it).
That function will now be taken on by a private operator chosen from what the council maintains has been a hard-fought, competitive tendering process. They originally received interest from five commercial operators, and these were whittled down to three for the final phase of consideration over the past three months.
The council has been unwilling to disclose the identity of any of the bidders for the contract, and now it is withholding the name of the winning bid to fulfill legal requirements. “We’re at a legal standstill for five days,” a senior council figure said, “so those not successful can challenge the process.”
Today, Sean Fitzsimons, the Labour councillor who chairs the council’s scrutiny committee, told Inside Croydon, “I am looking forward to getting the Fairfield Halls’ new operator in front of a scrutiny committee, after one has been appointed, so that the committee and public can scrutinise their proposals in public.”
Fitzsimons declined to say whether his committee will be calling in this decision, though he did say, “I would hate to see this delayed due to party political point-scoring.”
The whole process has already dragged on for more than a decade: there were plans to refurbish the Halls in 2006, but these were shelved when the Conservatives resumed control of Croydon Town Hall.
When the current Labour council announced it was going ahead with the refurbishment of the Halls, Newman, in his usual blustering style, boasted to a Town Hall meeting that the renewed Fairfield Halls would “rival the South Bank”.
That’s something that no one could reasonably expect a suburban arts centre without a significant Arts Council grant or massive commercial sponsorship to achieve. This week’s council report describes the complex’s future in more measured, and somewhat more realistic, tones.
“Croydon’s cultural offer will grow in scale and take its place as an active partner in London-wide cultural programmes and as a key South London satellite,” the report states.
“The refurbished Fairfield Halls will be at the heart of Croydon’s cultural offer –the largest scale and highest profile player. To achieve that ambition, the Council has undertaken a procurement exercise in accordance with the Concessions Contract Regulations 2016 (“CCR”) to appoint an operator that can deliver a commercially sustainable cultural programme which maximises the investment in Fairfield Halls and actively engages Croydon’s diverse communities in the cultural life of the borough.”
The report specifies the council’s requirements of the operator, who will need to ensure that the venue becomes “a cultural destination of choice for residents and visitors” and “an open and welcoming building that is animated and busy”, while the programme should be “wide-ranging” and “high-quality… across all forms of music, theatre and dance of national significance”.
There will be no operation subsidy, as there had been from the council for the previous operators, at one point amounting to £1million per year.
Instead, the new Fairfield Halls operator will be expected to ensure the complex is “financially sustainable, building reserves for future capital costs, bringing in revenue for creative projects and developing commercial income” – basically making a better job of it than Fairfield Croydon Ltd managed in recent years.
There appears to be a strong focus on using the Halls as a conference venue. “The Preferred Bidder has extensive experience producing conferences, exhibitions and events across a variety of audiences and has developed a programme on a local and national level which will generate economic benefits for the borough,” the report states.
It also says: “The Preferred Bidder has proposed a solution which optimises community engagement and partnership working with the Council and other stakeholders. The proposal is for the delivery of a varied cultural programme and strong commercial operation, resonating with the diverse and changing population of Croydon and building positively on the opportunities from the regeneration in the area.
“The Preferred Bidder proposes to work with partners, including the gallery operator, local businesses and the community, to enhance the public profile of the venue and attract higher audience numbers through international performances.
“Through delivery of a range of artistic and cultural activities including theatre, music, visual arts, international performances, comedy, heritage, dance and community events, the Preferred Bidder is aiming to deliver over 800 performances and as the new cultural hub for the local community with a diverse programme including at least 447 community performances.
“The Preferred Bidder will offer value for money with low price point tickets to ensure Fairfield Halls is returned to a financially sustainable world-class venue which is accessible to all.”
And following the multi-million-pound dropped bollock of handing a council loan to Boxpark without insisting that the booze and burger venue at East Croydon complies with the council’s London Living Wage policy, according to this report, the Fairfield Halls operator must pay its staff that enhanced rate as a condition of its agreement.
The fees paid to the operator could range from £90million to £180million, according to the report, depending on whether the initial 10-year deal has an additional five-year option taken up.
To be encircled by hundreds of new flats to be built on College Green (which when sold off will help defray the costs of the Halls’ upgrade) and with promised improved access to the transport hub at East Croydon, the new operator will have much work to re-establish the Fairfield’s reputation of excellence from the 1960s within the improved and modernised arenas.
As community activist Andrew Kennedy said today, “It is clear that this will have to be a highly active manager with an incredibly aggressive marketing campaign if they are to operate the venue at prices affordable to the local population. Populist does not equate in my mind with a highly successful international reputation unless it is for the biggest pop and rock acts. A sort of O2, but without the capacity.
“Whatever it is, it is a key moment in Croydon’s history.”
Whoever does get named next week will have at least 20 months to prepare its programme for when the Fairfield Halls re-opens and beyond. The tight refurbishment schedule which was originally meant to take just two years is already running late, with council officials remaining hopeful of a grand opening towards the end of 2018 – in time for the money-spinning panto and Christmas season.
But senior figures are already conceding that the new art gallery, being built in what was previously the Halls’ underground car park, definitely will not be ready until 2019. And the identity of the gallery operator has not yet been determined and will also be subject to a bidding process.
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