CROYDON COMMENTARY: Building delays, budget-busting over-runs, the inexplicable changes of the names of long-established venues… The council’s £30million refurbishment of the borough’s largest arts complex has been a Pantomime from the start, and says DAVID WICKENS, it is Fairfield Halls’ staff and the borough’s residents who are left to pick up the costs
Once upon a time, back in 2016, Croydon Council considered proposals for refurbishing Fairfield Halls and regeneration of the surrounding area in what it designated “the Cultural and Educational Quarter”.
Yes, considering this is Croydon, that might seem to be a bit of a fairy tale.
Councillors were sold a scheme by the council’s professional staff, the officers, that claimed refurbishment was possible in just two years and would be £5million cheaper than if they undertook a phased refurbishment scheme, keeping some of the venues open while work went on elsewhere, but over a longer period.
The downside was the redundancy of all the Fairfield staff. The Labour-run council, contrary to general historic Labour policy, chose the promised savings at the cost of the jobs – about 100 of them.
Shame on them, given where we are today.
Soon after the closure of the Fairfield Halls in July 2016, the council’s cabinet received and approved a report outlining the programme for the refurbishment.
This report, presented in November 2016, listed three “lead officers” (most projects have but one council executive in charge), including the council’s £200,000 per year chief executive, Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini.
Even at such an early stage in the refurbishment works, the report made it clear that, five months in, they were already running behind schedule. The works were being overseen by Brick by Brick, the council’s own house-building company, and one with no corporate record of ever having overseen a project of this scale or nature.
Inside Croydon reported this. There was great scepticism among Inside Croydon commentators as to the practicalities of the programme. A basic knowledge of construction costs brings the whole relationship between the suggested construction period and costs into question.
According to the council’s own report, after deduction of professional costs, the refurbishment would come in for about £25million. Of this, £8million would be labour costs for a typical contract. The main construction period was given as 18 months, which suggest labour costs of £440,000 per month, which equates to about 150 workers (at £3,000 monthly salary) on site at any one time.
Yes, this is simplistic, but it is based on known figures, as the council and developers have never made available more detailed figures. But the general scale of the figures is hard to dispute.
In a building like the Fairfield the required intensity of work to occupy this size of workforce is very difficult to achieve.
It therefore comes as no surprise that almost from the outset there have been a succession of reports to council detailing deferrals of the scheduled opening date. These usually finish with a statement that everyone will be impressed with what has been achieved.
In recent months, we have first been told of a promised opening date in June 2019 to which the Duke of Wessex would be the guest of honour at a gala concert. Then Inside Croydon discovered that even this royal occasion has had to be scrapped because of the late-running refurbishment works.
The full opening is now scheduled for September 2019. That is 14 months late on what was supposed to be a 24-month programme. It’s even worse if you consider that the construction phase has increased from 18 months to 32 months.
Delays are commonplace on contracts, but tend to be less so where there is proper and informed design and planning. The council had the advantage of extensive construction record plans of Fairfield, so there is limited opportunity to blame delay on unforeseen work.
What is far more likely is that the decision-makers were seduced by over-optimistic and uninformed claims from “construction professionals”, particularly those that may appear to have a conflict of interest.
The various architects, designers and contractors, even Brick by Brick, would normally expect to receive fees on a scheme by scheme basis. These are normally in stages and either fixed price or some kind of percentage arrangements. If the client (in this case Croydon Council) had been properly aware of how optimistic the programme and cost projections were, then they might have had second thoughts about going ahead with it. And so the opportunity for further fees on the scheme would have been lost… Thus it is very tempting for the professionals to take an “optimistic” approach to improve their chances of continuing work.
Such conflicts tend to occur far less with directly employed professional staff, although they would also be, to a lesser extent, interested in continuing their employment overseeing a portfolio of schemes. Of course, we might fully expect self-professed regeneration expert Negrini to be able to demonstrate that some thorough and independent “due diligence” was used to check the viability of such an important, and costly, scheme.
There are also wider implications to consider.
Since the works started, Croydon College sold a package of land to a third-party developer. This land was required, by Brick by Brick and the council, as a key part of the overall Cultural Quarter scheme. Negotiations over the sale of the college annex building had been going on for years, but the council officials, or Brick by Brick executives, failed to secure the property.
Without this land, the construction of potentially hundreds of “profit generating” flats will be compromised. It is this profit that is required to pay for much of the Fairfield scheme. Once again, as with the “Bridge To Nowhere” at East Croydon Station (which still stands today, dangling in mid-air at one end, uncompleted, six years after the bridge was opened for public use), the council broke the golden rule of construction by failing to secure the land before committing to construction.
The Fairfield Halls situation is exacerbated by the delay in completion increasing construction costs.
Responsibility for these costs should be determined in accordance with the construction contract and it would be interesting to know their magnitude and who will be meeting them. I doubt if Croydon Council will be keen to reveal how the land and costs issue will be resolved. What was sold to the people of Croydon as a £30million scheme must now be rising towards £40million, and with reducing prospects of income from the sale of flats.
Don’t worry though, the council will just have to borrow more money, and for longer.
But I am sure that our council’s leadership will assure us all that their Fairfield fairy tale will have the happiest of happy endings.
- David Wickens is a retired civil engineer who, once upon a time, used to work at Croydon Council, including on the successful delivery of major civic projects, such as the Croydon Tramlink
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