A social enterprise company which manages the Bournemouth International Centre on the south coast is set to be announced as the new operator for Croydon’s Fairfield Halls later this week.
But for legal reasons the council, which owns the Fairfield Halls arts complex, has withheld the identity of the winning bidder. They will be signing what amounts to a pretty chunky concessions contract, with the new management team retaining the money made from staging shows, plays, conferences and concerts in the Croydon venue.
Industry sources have indicated that Dorset-based BH Live, the operators of nearly 20 halls, arts venues and sports centres along the south coast, is to be revealed on Friday as the winning bidder.
Fairfield Halls would be by far the most significant venue BH Live has yet managed.
BH Live’s company website states that it has 3 million visitors per year and £35million turnover. Fairfield Halls could increase that latter figure by one-third.
BH Live manages the Bournemouth International Centre, the Pavilion Theatre and Ballroom with the town’s borough council. Among the notable events staged there recently have been concerts by Barry Manilow and Kylie Minogue, Premier League darts and the 2015 Liberal Democrat party conference.
Last year, venues run by BH Live hosted more than 500 events and welcomed 118,000 conference and exhibition delegates. Indeed, BH Live’s business appears to be stronger in conferences than in staging international calibre classical music, opera or ballet, and that may give some indication of the direction the Fairfield Halls may go, with income from conferences helping to subsidise a more community-based arts programme.
It is notable that Croydon’s council leader Tony Newman has not repeated his earlier boasts that the refurbished Fairfield “will rival the South Bank”.
Such an overblown claim was ridiculous at the time; with BH Live chosen ahead of London-based theatre operators such as ATG, who run the successful arts programme at the Wimbledon Theatre, and who are also understood to have been among early Fairfield bidders, it seems likely to be hard for Newman to live down his remarks in future.
“Bournemouth?” one council figure said when contacted by Inside Croydon. “That’s so very Terry and June. But then, given the Fairfield’s twee reputation in recent years, maybe it is a neat fit. “
The Fairfield Halls include a concert hall, Ashcroft Theatre and Arnhem Gallery. They all “went dark” last July for the first time since the complex was opened in 1962, 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.
The successful bidders to run the Fairfield, which is expected to re-open in late 2018, have agreed to comply with the Labour-run council’s London Living Wage policy for all those employed at the Halls.
The value of the contract, which is estimated to be worth between £90million to £180million over the course of the 10-year term and a possible additional five-year option, is contained entirely within ticket sales and hall hires to be arranged by the operator. For Croydon Council, the deal represents a saving of at least £1million per year, as they will no longer be providing a subsidy to the venue out of Council Tax.
The closure of the Halls, instead of a more costly phased redevelopment, met hostile opposition from an organisation that called itself “Save Our Fairfield”. This campaign was readily identified as a bunch of vested interests and Tory stooges from the moment that the previous chief executive of the Fairfield Halls, Simon Thomsett, helped to put out chairs for its meetings and they set up a pretty shabby rendition of “Land of Hope and Glory” sung by a choir that included local Conservative leader Tim Pollard and Tory Assembly Member Steve O’Connell.
Over the weekend, Pollard published a 400-word rant about the Fairfield Halls operator selection process which contained not a single word about the quality of opera, classical music or drama which the new management might bring to the Halls.
“For eight years, Pollard and Croydon Tories allowed the Fairfield Halls to rot, without any of the investment which they desperately needed, both for the buildings and for the cultural programme,” a Town Hall source said.
“It’s just pretty clueless, opposition-for-opposition’s sake stuff. Pollard’s statement showed that he’s more concerned about trying to score political points than having any genuine interest in Croydon’s cultural offer and future.
“A successful charitable trust would surely be the result that would guarantee the community and cultural outcomes that we all want?”
Peter Gunn, BH Live’s chief executive, declined to speak to Inside Croydon when approached about the imminent announcement, but his office directed us to call a member of Croydon Council’s press office staff.
Which we did.
“Can I get back to you on that?” was all the council press officer said before ending the call. Since when, they have not called us back to deny that BH Live is to be the new operator of the Fairfield Halls.
- To read the council key decision report on the Fairfield Halls operator appointment in pdf format, click here
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