EXCLUSIVE: Arts correspondent BELLA BARTOCK on the latest delay to the borough’s ‘Cultural Quarter’ plans
The Fairfield Halls’ “Grand Re-opening Gala”, to be staged in the Concert Hall in the presence of the Earl of Wessex, won’t be taking place until June 2019.
That’s almost a full year later than council leader Tony Newman promised when they closed the borough’s leading arts venue in July 2016.
What was supposed to be a two-year refurbishment of the famous venue has been subject to costly delays and over-runs ever since.
The project, which is being overseen by the council’s own house-builders, Brick by Brick, has also suffered a multi-million-pound financial set-back, with part of the site for thousands of new homes on neighbouring College Green having been sold by Croydon College to rival developers. The council had been negotiating with Croydon College over the purchase of its annex building for at least three years.
The £30million refurbishment of the 56-year-old Fairfield Halls, meanwhile, has been plagued with delays from the start. Council sources suggest that cost over-runs have also compromised aspects of the original plans, with some upgrades having now been dropped to save money.
The main construction work did not begin until September 2017 – 14 months after the Concert Hall and Ashcroft Theatre had closed their doors to their loyal audiences and “gone dark”.
Brick by Brick did not engage the project’s main contractors, Vinci Construction UK, until May 2017.
A council-run website explained at that time, “Since the venue closed last summer, Brick by Brick has had contractors on site carrying out enabling works to prepare the building for the main structural works.
“Over the last 10 months, extensive work has taken place behind the hoardings, including detailed surveys, ground investigations, asbestos removal and the strip of loose fixtures and fittings such as flooring, ceilings, and soft furnishings.”
The council-run website for the Fairfield Halls has not carried any updates since September last year.
Most recently, however, the slow rate of progress has been clearly visible without the need to go online.
The demolition and re-build of the Arnhem Gallery appears well behind any schedule which would allow for an imminent re-opening. The Gallery’s walls were demolished in December last year. After standing for months with flapping plastic sheeting covering a hole in the building and little, if any, construction activity going on, it is only in the past few weeks that the large steel superstructure for the gallery’s re-build has gone on to the site.
As recently as January this year, the council was still claiming that the Halls would re-open by the end of 2018.
But in an official council report in March, reality began to bite.
“In terms of the timescale for the works overall, the concert hall will be available by the end of this year with a subsequent phased opening of the other venue spaces to follow with full handover by the end of March 2019,” the council officers’ report to cabinet stated. The “handover” is the transfer between builders and the Halls’ management company, who will oversee the fitting out of the venues.
The report hinted strongly at a phased re-opening, venue by venue, as it spoke of, “building gradually to full-scale operation”.
Now, even that tardy timetable looks to be on the optimistic side.
However, as recently as last month, at a Town Hall meeting, Newman told his fellow councillors that the Fairfield Halls “is on track to open early next year”.
And Newman added, “I think we should be honest and open with people about why there is a delay if there is a delay.”
It might be hard to honestly describe June 12, 2019, as “early next year”.
But that is the date published by one of the venue’s long-standing arts groups for the re-opening gala.
The London Mozart Players last night revealed the June date in their regular newsletter.
They wrote: “A magnificent concert to celebrate the opening of the refurbished Concert Hall in the new Fairfield Halls hosted by our Patron, HRH The Earl of Wessex.
“The concert will feature LMP ambassadors and special guests including Simon Callow, Howard Shelley and Jane Glover.”
The presence of royalty in south London for the re-opening of the Fairfield Halls will remind some of that night in 1962 when the Queen Mother visited the venue for its official opening.
Her grandson, Prince Edward, has attended the Fairfield Halls on a number of occasions more recently on London Mozart Players duties: in 2012, for the Halls’ 50th anniversary concert, and again in 2016, for the final event before the Fairfield Halls closed for refurbishment.
Of course, it is possible that the Fairfield Halls will be open and fully operational ahead of the royal gala event, which will have been scheduled to suit the Wessexes’ diaries.
But it appears increasingly unlikely that both of the Ashcroft Theatre or the Arnhem Gallery areas will be operational so soon.
Indeed, according to insiders, anyone who manages to get a ticket for the gala night might be disappointed at the lack of noticeable changes in the Concert Hall for the £30million council expenditure on what Newman has called, “Perhaps the biggest project that the council is responsible for”.
Our source says that the Concert Hall is “the bit of the refurbishment that hasn’t had anything done to it, apart from a new acoustic ceiling and motorised lighting grid”.
They said: “Council officials have talked regularly about opening the Concert Hall first – but literally it won’t look any different, as all that it has had done is the lighting rig and acoustic canopy, and a refurb of the seats. There is no stage engagement. And no choir stalls on risers. Even the council saying the lights will be LED is misleading, as the old lights were also LED. They have simply redone the wiring.”
This absence of any noticeable change could, the insider suggests, overshadow the re-opening. But plans to install a larger stage and choir seats on risers, to help to deliver Newman’s expectation of a wider range of musical performances, have been dropped in a “de-scoping” process, an effort to keep the overall project as close to its £30million budget as possible.
There is a suggestion that the Fairfield Halls refurbishment has already gone over budget, but by how much has not been revealed. “Try getting a full breakdown of anything from Brick by Brick,” our Katharine Street source said.
Last week, Inside Croydon approached BH Live, the Bournemouth-based venue operators who will be running the Fairfield Halls, for comment on the on-going delays in the refurbishment. They have failed to respond.
Likewise, Croydon Council’s press office had not replied to our request for comment on the June 12 date for the re-opening concert by the time of publication.
But at least Tony Newman has started to dial-down his ludicrous and hyperbolic rhetoric about the renewed Fairfield Halls becoming a venue to rival the international arts reputation of the South Bank.
“It’s going to be fabulous, it’s going to be something the whole town can be proud of and something that hopefully the whole of south London will be using,” Newman told last month’s cabinet meeting.
He just didn’t tell them when it might be open.
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