EXCLUSIVE: Our unfurloughed arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, on dark times for Croydon’s major arts venue
Fairfield Halls’ casual staff, who have been furloughed since the arts venue closed its doors for the coronavirus lockdown in March, have been told that the scheme will be stopped with effect from the end of this month, after which they will no longer be paid.
The Fairfield Halls, according to venue managers BHLive, are “entering a period of hibernation”. Consultations over redundancies are being held with contracted staff.
Emails were sent on Monday to around 80 part-time workers, most of whom could, when the venue was open, be seen at the Halls in green T-shirts, acting as front door greeters, ushers within the theatre and concert halls, staffing the cloakroom, servery, café and all of the bars.
The council-owned Fairfield Halls only reopened last September, after closure for more than three years during a refurbishment which cost at least £43million.
Because the affected staff were only part-time, BHLive had not been required to furlough them at all, under the government-funded scheme which guaranteed 80 per cent of their income up to a limit of £2,500 per month. But with the government now shifting the terms of furlough, and with no prospect of reopening the Halls in sight, BHLive notified the workers that they will no longer be kept on after June 30.
Bournemouth-based BHLive have been criticised by some of the affected staff for the manner in which they handled the announcement. The first email sent on Monday suggested that the casuals would be kept on furlough until the end of July. That was quickly corrected in a second email.
“BHLive are portrayed as a ‘Social Enterprise’ and yet have handled this very badly,” one insider said. “The staff defended them to the hilt when the venue reopened, yet now they cannot even have the grace to give us as much as a ‘Thank you’ for all our hard work under very difficult circumstances.
“Everyone knows zero hours comes with disadvantages, but decency costs nothing.”
The venue is known to have been struggling to re-establish itself with the Croydon public before lockdown, with disappointing tickets sales for what some have described as a lacklustre programme in the first six months after the re-opening, which even staff have described as”shambolic”. The Fairfield’s artistic director, Neil Chandler, quit in February, and has not been replaced.
The BHLive email said, “Regretfully as we enter into a period of hibernation we are unlikely to be able to offer you any casual periods of work for some time and as such will be removing you from both the casual list and the furlough scheme.”
Ominously, for those with contracts to work at the venue, the email added, “We are entering into a period of consultation for contracted colleagues to discuss the impact the period of hibernation has on contracted roles.
“I am sorry not to be able to provide a more positive message at this stage, as you will appreciate the response to covid-19 is regularly changing.”
Theatres, cinemas and concert venues may emerge as being the worst-hit by coronavirus of all sectors of the economy, as under social distancing rules it is impossible for them to re-open their auditoriums to large numbers of paying customers. Some West End theatres have already scrapped all of their programmes for 2020, with others even abandoning any hope of hosting performances before 2022.
This week, announcing their own response to the Chancellor’s changes to the furlough scheme, one venue, the Birmingham Hippodrome, announced that it was entering redundancy consultations with its staff. The Hippodrome is of a similar scale to the Fairfield Halls, their predicaments liable to be very much alike.
“The impact of the crisis has been devastating,” the Hippodrome announced, “and it has become a reality that Birmingham Hippodrome will be unable to reopen until social distancing measures are relaxed. Almost all our income is received from ticket sales, and without that revenue stream, the future of the theatre is in jeopardy.
“We have had to accept that our immediate future has changed, and our financial situation will be in jeopardy for some time to come. When it comes time to reopen Birmingham Hippodrome, it will need to be a different organisation than when we closed. This has led to the very difficult and heart-breaking conclusion that we need to scale back areas of the business and significantly reduce our team size.”
Timothy Godfrey, the former Croydon councillor and cabinet member for the arts, responded to that news from Birmingham by tweeting, “And so it begins… every civic and commercial venue and theatre company and leisure provider will have to decide at what point to basically close up shop. Mothball. That’s a huge blow to the artistic, cultural and sporting heritage of our nation.”
For “mothball”, read “hibernate” at the Fairfield Halls, starting with the casual staff being laid off.
“No one could foresee a pandemic, and so the laying off of staff again comes as no surprise, but the way it has been done is unacceptable,” said the source.
“It seems to further prove how doomed this project has been from start to finish. With so much having been spent on this project, what now?
“I sincerely hope the Fairfield can recover from this. The way the staff have been treated, though, is appalling and everyone in Croydon deserves better. The venue is a huge asset and cannot be allowed to disappear.”
Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture in 2023.
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