The refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls could end up costing Croydon’s Council Tax-payers £60million – or even more.
And there are fears within the town’s arts circles that BH Live, the events and management firm brought in by venue owners Croydon Council to run the centre, could even quit their agreement over their increasing dissatisfaction with the quality of the refurbishment work and finish.
The soaring costs were the shock revelation of last night’s meeting of the full council in the Town Hall chamber, where the Labour council leader Tony Newman – in a performance which was perhaps the very definition of kakistocracy – was unable to deny that the refurbishment on the Fairfield Halls had managed to reach double the original £30million budget for the works.
The Fairfield Halls arts centre was closed in June 2016 for what was supposed to be a two-year, £30million refurbishment project. A council report, presented in November 2016, listed three “lead officers” (most projects have but one council executive in charge), including the council’s £220,000 per year chief executive, Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini.
To manage the project, the council put its in-house house-builders Brick by Brick in charge, a company with no track record in building homes, never mind extensive and complicated refurbishment projects on heritage buildings. It is a decision which could be costing Croydon residents for decades to come.
After four re-opening dates – including one royal gala concert – had to be cancelled, the Halls only re-opened in September last year, 15 months late, and with the cost of the project having risen to £41million.
Newman’s council tried to claim the additional costs were because the contractors had gone into the 1950s-built concert hall and Ashcroft Theatre and were somehow shocked and surprised to discover wide use of asbestos. This despite the council having commissioned repeat engineering scoping reports for asbestos before any refurbishment works took place….
After re-opening, it soon became apparent to visitors, theatre- and concert-goers that the Fairfield works were often poorly finished, and that the refurbishment was incomplete. At the last council meeting, in December, Newman was confronted with a visitor satisfaction rating of 3.5/5 on TripAdvisor, something which mid-debate he tried to contradict by claiming the figure was in fact 4.5 – thereby demonstrating his innumeracy or inability with digital technology. Or both.
The failure to carry through many of the elements of modernisation on the venue may be cause for further disappointment in the years to come. Back-of-house access, meant to be opened up to allow bigger modern rigs to be hauled into the concert hall, had been long abandoned. The 60-year-old seats in the concert hall and Ashcroft Theatre remain, unrepaired or replaced. The underground car park – which was given nearly £3million of public grants for its conversion into a visual arts gallery – is to remain as a car park, but one that is still not yet ready to be re-opened.
But for kakistocrat Newman, raising questions over his council’s poor leadership and management of the project is not allowed because, according to him, it is “talking the borough down”.
The £60million cost figure is apparently well-known among the town’s senior arts circles, as well as Negrini, Newman and the council’s arts director, Paula Murray.
But when council opposition leader Tim Pollard put Newman on the spot last night, the council leader refused to deny the £60million price tag. Instead, he resorted to bumbling obfuscation and buck-passing.
“Well, of course, I haven’t got the exact figure to hand, Councillor Pollard,” Newman replied, admitting he was not on top of his brief, “but I think this is extraordinary because I think if I’m right this is the third consecutive council meeting where you have started the meeting, or your contribution to it such as it is, with an attack on the Fairfield Halls…
“I am aware that Councillor Fitzsimons, who is very much a man for detail, will be looking at this next week in scrutiny and I will urge you Councillor Pollard to attend that meeting and I’m sure Councillor Fitzsimons will facilitate your presence at or maybe even having a speaking part in it, should you wish.
“But really I would urge, we had the absurd statistics around TripAdvisor, which I do think you spend a little too much time on myself, now you’re attacking again the Fairfield Halls. Why not- why not get, I plead one more time, why not get behind the Halls, congratulate everyone working there, the fantastic 25,000 people who attended the pantomime over Christmas, why not celebrate the town’s success, Councillor Pollard, rather than constantly run it down?”
Newman, it seemed, failed to see what a pantomime he was playing a part in, while brushing aside the overspend of £30million of other people’s money.
A week earlier, at the council’s previous scrutiny meeting, Newman had suggested that in future, so that his council doesn’t get caught out over its vast cost over-runs on projects, he might favour not releasing the budget figures on such building schemes. Kakistocracy defined.
Pollard pressed the point on the amount of the Fairfield Halls cost over-run, and called for a public inquiry into the running of Brick by Brick.
“It was a simple question and you’re saying you don’t know the exact figure,” Pollard said.
“Well, we’ll take an approximate figure, say to the nearest million. You can manage a figure to the nearest million can’t you? It is actually a vital question for the public to know the answer to, because this is public money that you are spending, all be it through your strange Brick by Brick vehicle. We need to know the answer to this question and we’re going to keep asking it until we get it.
“But it seems like the only way we’re going to get any answers on Fairfield Halls, any answers on the other activities of Brick by Brick, is to have a public inquiry. So will you commit now to having a full independent public inquiry, open book, so that we can see what it is you’re actually delivering?”
Once again, Newman had no answer – not even one of those non-answer answers which passably competent, third-rate politicians might have.
Instead, Newman opted to focus on the fact that his council’s loss-making in-house house-builder, which has built just three council flats in five years, was lined up for some vacuous award…
He said this: “I think we are living in parallel universes, you actually started your question by saying ‘people round the town are saying’ so you weren’t referencing any documents, you were just responding to rumours, because most people, most people involved in the cultural activities around the town, Councillor Pollard, recently who I’ve worked with of course have been hugely supportive of this administration and our bid for the Borough of Culture and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for those efforts.
“They haven’t been sitting in coffee bars speculating wildly with you about the cost of various projects. As regards Brick by Brick, it’s actually up for I think another national award at the Local Government Chronicle awards in a few months time. People, people in this town recognise that we’ve delivered the Fairfield Halls at a very very good price and value for money for the taxpayers of Croydon because of the way it’s being paid for, and Brick by Brick has provided much needed affordable homes as well.
“So, once again, we’re providing housing, we’re refurbishing the Fairfield Halls, we’re bidding for the Borough of Culture, and all we have is you locked in a scenario that I find quite harrowing really, locked in the front room over the weekend, obsessed with TripAdvisor and anything you can do to run the town down.”
Clearly, then, in Newman’s parallel universe, there’s nothing wrong at all.
But for all the council’s posturing, the mounting discontent of venue managers and promoters BHLive over the state of the Fairfield Halls could present Newman and Negrini with their latest Brick by Brick-inspired crisis.
The position with BHLive is liable to be the focus for questions at next week’s scrutiny committee, if Newman-loyalist Fitzsimons, the committee chair, allows it to be included on an agenda which already includes Brick by Brick’s latest business plan (not yet published, despite the requirement for such reports to be published 10 days in advance), and the housing revenue account.
But according to some sources, BHLive have yet to sign a long-term lease and have threatened to walk away if their perfectly reasonable concerns about the quality of works at the Halls are not addressed within weeks.
Today, a spokeswoman for BHLive refused to deny that the company had been in urgent discussions with Croydon Council over the state of the Fairfield Halls refurbishment.
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