With the Fairfield Halls refurbishment costs now confirmed as £42.6m, and still rising, the venue is struggling to win back its audiences, as KEN LEE reports
The costs of refurbishing the Fairfield Halls rose by another £1.6million in just five months since it re-opened last September – and there could be many millions more to add to the price tag of the council-owned arts venue.
That was some of the detail which was prised out of the somewhat reluctant Colm Lacey, the managing director of the council-owned, loss-making house-builder Brick by Brick at last week’s scrutiny meeting in the Town Hall chamber, where councillors were also informed that the Halls had only managed to sell 26 per cent of available tickets since the “grand” re-opening conducted by London Mayor Sadiq Khan and national treasure Dame Judi Dench.
The management company, BH Live, appointed by the council to run the venue, say that their business plan calls for 45 per cent occupancy. Neil Chandler, the former cruise ship entertainments officer who manages the venue for BH Live, suggested at the shortfall was, at least in part, due to the lack of an available car park.
The 200-space underground car park is due to re-open later this year – another Brick by Brick project which has failed to be delivered on time or on budget, and for which the costs will be lumped on to the £42.6million spent so far, the figure Lacey was prepared to admit to at the council committee last week.
The Fairfield Halls re-opened in September, 15 months later than planned, with works clearly unfinished, and promised improvements and updates incomplete. It was then that it was revealed that costs had spiralled – what was budgeted to be a £30million project had cost, the public was told then, £41million.
The scrutiny committee might have been expected to delve deep into the workings of the council and council officials. But chaired by the far from impartial Sean Fitzsimons (£41,798.04 per year in “loyalty bonus”, or council allowances, awarded by council leader Tony Newman), this became an Orwellian exercise in re-writing history and avoiding asking the obvious questions.
Apparently, there never was any “budget” for the refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls, just an “expected expenditure”, as Labour councillor Fitzsimons carefully steered witnesses through the areas that they were prepared to speak about.
Questions for Lacey from Tory councillors were limited to just one, although committee vice-chair Robert Ward was allowed to waffle through half a dozen ill-considered questions about almost irrelevant details around car parking. There was more than a sense that Fitzsimons, and Lacey, were happy for Ward to lead the committee down this dead end when more pressing matters – such as a real estimate of what the final costs might be – was evaded.
Fitzsimons gushed with excitement about the tour of the Halls he and the committee had been taken on earlier that day, which showed “the journey we’ve been on”.
And there was no need to concern the councillors about the ultimate final bill – with some estimates suggesting it could eventually top £60million – because according to Lacey and Oliver Lewis, the council cabinet member for culture, “In some ways there’s no cost to the council because by using Brick by Brick we’ve released the development potential of the land surrounding the Halls.”
This, of course, is the ultimate jam tomorrow: having ballsed up the property purchase of the Croydon College Annex, Lacey’s Brick by Brick is now re-submitting a planning application for hundreds of flats on the site adjacent to the Halls. The plan is that once built these will be flogged off and the profits will balance out the money spent on the refurbishment.
The problem with this scheme is that it is all dependent on Brick by Brick, and Lacey, actually delivering what is proposed on time and on budget, and then actually managing to sell the flats – all things which Brick by Brick, since it was formed in 2015, has singularly failed to do.
The Fairfield Halls now stand as a fine example of Brick by Brick’s costly short-comings, not that anyone on the scrutiny committee was prepared to delve more deeply into the matter.
“I’m very proud of this,” Lacey said. “I think we’ve done a great job.”
He then went on to repeatedly demonstrate his incompetence: “We have had quite a few unforeseens, the biggest being asbestos which had a costly and complicated impact.”
There had been three major scoping surveys of the Fairfield Halls conducted by Croydon Council before the venue was closed for refurbishment.
Nor had Lacey foreseen the costs of fitting fire-retarding sprinklers around the building.
“We discovered we needed to replace all fire doors.”
And, “There were things we found on site we didn’t anticipate.” These were the answers from a refurbishment rookie.
Whether Lacey, or Brick by Brick, were ever qualified to conduct the refurbishment project is moot. Lacey, after all, had spent his entire career as a middle-management local authority worker before his then boss, Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, the council CEO, appointed him to run Brick by Brick.
Jerry Fitzpatrick, the Addiscombe West councillor and retired lawyer, at least was allowed to ask some more testing questions. Not that he got many straight answers.
What other expenditure might there need to be on the Halls, Fitzpatrick asked. “There may well be further works,” Lacey said, without stating what they might be.
The car park, the landscaping of the public realm outside of the Halls (which cannot be completed for at least three years because of Brick by Brick’s housing development) and actually getting round to replacing the seating in the Concert Hall are among some of the tasks yet to be completed, and costs yet to be incurred.
Fitzpatrick’s time up, another Labour councillor took over the questioning. Leila Ben-Hassel was clearly on-message. “I’m not shocked by the amount spent,” she said, apologising for the people she was meant to be scrutinising.
And with the word “budget” banished from her vocabulary. “The cost estimate…”, meaning the £30million budget, “… was unrealistic. Would you agree with that?” This, remember, is millions of pounds of public money that councillor Ben-Hassel was waiving away here as if it is inconsequential.
“It is right that we invest in a building that is part of our history and heritage in Croydon. We were seeking to restore it to its former glory,” said Lewis.
Chair Fitzsimons allowed Lacey to leave the meeting, before he managed to make any further excuses for his and Brick by Brick’s multi-million-pound overspend.
Having re-opened the Halls, though, the council faces the problem that too few people have been attracted by its productions to want to visit it.
Chandler actually claimed that it was because of “a lack of trust”, a stunning admission, and one which was barely pursued by the members of the scrutiny committee.
Having sold 88,000 tickets from mid-September, the re-opening, to December (the 26 per cent occupancy rate), the Halls had sold 90,000 tickets between December 16 and January 31.
Performances of concerts and even the Christmas panto – usually the biggest ticket-seller of the year at the venue – have gone on to half-empty auditoriums, with some local companies, having forked out for the hire of the Fairfield, concerned that they might not even break even.
“That has been down to a series of challenges you would expect when mobilising a building,” Chandler said.
“Yes it has been challenging but we are seeing some real positive green shoots that the management team will continue to build on.”
Sources at the Halls suggest that BH Live remain unhappy at the finish of the building works and how some of the promised facilities have been left incomplete. The thing is, BH Live, as managers of the venue, have to make money from running the venue. They receive no operational subsidy or grant from the council.
If they find that they are not doing so, then they could decide to walk away, leaving Lewis and Croydon Council with a £42.6million white elephant and no mahout. And this, remember, is the 2023 Borough of Culture.
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