WALTER CRONXITE on an outbreak of consensus and agreement for the future of the borough
Tory councillors’ “opposition for opposition’s sake” approach to the £30million refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls crumbled amid commonsense, the best interests of the borough and what’s beginning to appear to be a viable solution for the future of Croydon’s world-renowned arts venue.
A two-and-a-half hour council scrutiny meeting this week to look into the appointment of BHLive as the new operators of the Fairfield Halls concluded with Councillor Mario Creatura, the orchestrator of so much of the Croydon Conservatives’ campaigns, proposing that no further action was necessary.
The decision to appoint BHLive for a concessions agreement which could be worth up to £180million over a 15-year term agreement had been called in to the scrutiny committee by Croydon Conservatives, potentially risking delays in the process.
“As Mario was the one to propose no further action was necessary, this implies their acceptance that the decision was correct,” Sean Fitzsimons, the Labour councillor who chairs the scrutiny committee, told Inside Croydon.
The Labour-run council has faced noisy opposition from Croydon Tories and a ginger group calling itself Save Our Fairfield, though there’s been plenty to indicate that the campaign group was regularly having its strings pulled by Conservatives, including their leader on Croydon Council, Tim Pollard, and London Assembly Member Steve O’Connell.
The campaign group and the Tories opposed the closure of the Halls for two years, to allow for what we have been told would be a speedier and cheaper restoration of the 55-year-old arts complex. The Halls closed on July 15 last year.
Three days later Fairfield (Croydon) Ltd, the company which had managed the Halls, usually bailed out with at least £1million of council subsidy each year, went into administration making 220 staff redundant. Unable to meet the redundancy obligations in full, most of the redundancy money was paid by Croydon Council.
As exclusively revealed by Inside Croydon, BHLive has been appointed as the new operator, and even Save Our Fairfield has expressed itself as being “happy” with the decision.
While the Bournemouth-based company has been referred to, somewhat sniffily, in the trade newspaper, The Stage, as “sports centre operators”, the choice of BHLive, a social enterprise rather than a purely commercial operation, has been welcomed by the protest group, which has been subtly shifting its previously antagonistic position.
“We have always supported the investment in the arts in Croydon, which have been sadly lacking through the previous years of Croydon Council neglect,” an unnamed spokesperson for Save Our Fairfield was quoted in The Stage.
“We are happy that the new operator will be able to get involved in the design process and construction as soon as possible to avoid problems later for the operational staff.”
Indeed, it emerged at Wednesday’s scrutiny meeting in the Town Hall that the appointment of BHLive this month was urgent and essential for them to be able to have any worthwhile input into the on-site building works as they begin in earnest in the coming weeks.
Plans for the revamped venue and neighbouring College Green include a 1,800-seat concert hall, the Ashcroft Theatre, a 2,000 sq m art gallery where the underground car park used to be, plus shops, some office space and 218 homes to be built by council development company Brick by Brick.
BHLive has pledged to deliver a range of artistic and cultural activities at Fairfield, including theatre, opera, dance, live music, visual arts and comedy. The company said it would also host community events to put Fairfield Halls at the heart of Croydon’s cultural community. Proposals include a children’s theatre school, as well as partnerships with schools and colleges.
BHLive would “return Fairfield Halls back to the community as a transformed and thriving cultural hub”, according to Peter Gunn, the company’s chief executive.
“As a social enterprise, one of our defining differences is that the surplus we make enables us to invest back into the venues and services we deliver,” Gunn said.
“It also enables us to provide a diverse programme of activities and events with broad appeal to maximise on the venue’s unique spaces, which will further boost audiences and participation.”
But before Gunn and BHLive could get underway in earnest, the process of their appointment was subject to scrutiny at the council, a move by the Tory opposition which was seen as politically opportunistic.
“I had concerns about the call-in as it concentrated on the manner of the decision-making and not much about the decision itself,” Fitzsimons said.
Conservative councillors Helen Pollard and Sara “Book Token” Bashford opened the meeting seeking more information on reasons for the decision, which has been taken by council leader Tony Newman under delegated powers, without any debate at a cabinet meeting or at the council’s corporate services committee.
“I don’t know of any time when cabinet or corporate service has spent hours discussing the awarding of a contract,” Fitzsimons said.
It was made clear at scrutiny that had the decision been delayed until May’s cabinet meeting, it would not have had the operator on board in time for the start of refurbishment works.
“Taking a decision on April 11 meant that it takes roughly another month to sign final agreement after the cooling off period and fine tuning,” Fitzsimons said.
“BHLive can now take a full role from the start of the refurbishment works which start June 2017. It was always intended the operator would have a say on the refurbishment and this decision helped achieve this.”
Fitzsimons says that the meeting had it explained that the status of BHLive, as a social enterprise, is key. “Their aims are aligned with Croydon ‘s. There’s no public subsidy, so they will need to be commercially astute, but not to the extent of ripping off the public.”
And this will also enable the charges for using and hiring the Halls better suit schools and community groups. “Because profits are being steered elsewhere, they are able to offer a stronger programme than a private operator,” Fitzsimons said.
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