The Fairfield Halls may be in “hibernation” until next year because of coronavirus, but Croydon Council is now facing another crisis over its ill-fated £43million refurbishment project, with growing fears that the company appointed to manage the arts complex could hand back the keys and walk away at any point.
The council appointed Bournemouth-based swimming pool operators and conference organisers BH Live to run the arts programme at Fairfield Halls in early 2017.
A council report revealed that the deal with the social enterprise company included options to last for up to 15 years, and could ultimately be worth as much as £180million to BH Live.
Under the terms of the operating agreement, the council would no longer have to provide any day-to-day funding for running the venues, while BH Live would get to keep all receipts from ticket sales and bar and restaurant concessions.
When the deal was announced, BH Live had just over a year to wait before the curtain could go up at a refurbished, prestige venue, where the council was carrying out what was supposed to be a £30million modernisation.
But with rookie in-house developers Brick by Brick put in charge of refurbishment works, BH Live and the Croydon public were kept waiting until September 2019 before the five-times-postponed opening night could finally be staged, at a venue where building and refit works were still unfinished and some promised improvements were left incomplete.
Reluctantly, earlier this year, the council finally admitted that the over-running works had cost at least £43million. It is widely believed that that figure could rise yet further.
But as recently as February this year, Ollie “Butt Plug” Lewis, the council’s cabinet member for arts and shit, admitted under questioning at the Town Hall that BH Live had still not signed its operating lease for the Fairfield Halls. Looking on the bright side, Lewis suggested that BH Live were expected to sign the lease “imminently”.
The Fairfield Halls, of course, has been closed since March because of the covid-19 pandemic, with BH Live having to lay-off staff and mothball the venue, as was exclusively revealed by Inside Croydon.
Unless Lewis was deliberately misleading the scrutiny committee four months ago (and there’s no reason to believe that he made it up that BH Live had not yet signed the contract), then it seems very unlikely that BH Live will have signed on the dotted line during the coronavirus lockdown.
In the first three months after the Fairfield’s reopening, the operators were already known to have been hit with disappointing ticket sales.
Their artistic manager, Neil Chandler, who had been handed “the best job in Croydon” when appointed in those optimistic days of 2017, quit within six months of the reopening. BH Live has yet to name a replacement.
“To be honest, I can’t see why BH Live would want to stick with it, under the circumstances,” a senior Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon.
A newspaper interview given this month by Chris Symons, BH Live’s chief executive, was the first that most of the Halls’ staff had heard from the company’s Dorset-based management since the start of the lockdown, with the exception of the start of their redundancy consultations.
“Unlike many arts venues who receive Arts Council funding, Fairfield Halls relies completely on generating customer income to survive,” Symons said. “With no income generated at Fairfield Halls since the end of March and no immediate signs of recovery, like other venues up and down the country we have taken the tough decision to accept that normality in the theatre is not likely to return until the new year.
“Placing the building into hibernation will enable us to protect the venue and put plans in place for reopening in 2021.”
Sources at the Halls suggest that the decision to “hibernate” had not been communicated to producers and production companies who have been booked to perform at the Fairfield Halls for shows in the second-half of this year.
A five-year agreement with an instrument-manufacturer to provide the Halls with pianos, providing naming rights to the Concert Hall, was cancelled abruptly by BH Live with compensation paid to the supplier.
The Croydon pantomime, traditionally the Halls’ biggest annual money-spinner, has had to be canned, potentially at significant cost to the venue’s management.
But with bars, pubs and restaurants in most of England preparing to reopen this weekend after lockdown, sources close to the Halls remain unconvinced by BH Live’s position over “hibernation”. “The claim just doesn’t ring true,” they said.
“If there was the will there, there are ways in which the Halls could reopen in a reduced but socially distanced manner. We all know conferences and events will return in the autumn, and there is a takeaway café and room for live-steaming of concerts and other events, plus the possibility of generating income from allowing resident companies back into the building.
“So why mothball it and have to start all over again?”
There are questions over whether weekly safety tests of the Fairfield’s equipment have been conducted in the past three months, or the weekly legionella water testing that is required.
“If these tests are not being done, then the place will be in a real state come the re-reopening. If it’s not BH Live doing these tests, then surely the landlord, Croydon Council, has an obligation?”
There has also been a suggestion that, despite cash-strapped Croydon Council’s intention of no longer having to pay any money to the operators to support their revenue streams, the Town Hall has been forced to provide some form of compensation to BH Live because of the unsatisfactory and incomplete state of the Fairfield Halls after Brick by Brick’s botched refurbishment.
Croydon Council failed to respond to Inside Croydon’s questions regarding the operating lease and any payments made to BH Live as “liquidated damages”.
Our Katharine Street source said today, “I keep hearing rumours that BH Live’s management are seriously considering pulling out. The council won’t say whether the contract that we were told they were ‘due imminently’ to sign in March has ever been signed. It’s all very suspicious.”
Croydon has been chosen as London’s “Borough of Culture” in 2023, with a civic venue that has no pianos and has no dedicated gallery space…
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Let’s not be surprised by anything this current administration gift the residents of Croydon.
They have shown themselves totally incapable of living in the real commercial world. Just look at the mountain of debt they have built up costing tens of millions to finance. Interest that could/should be being spent on Council services supporting those in need and respecting council tax payers.
Yet more evidence, as if it were needed, that Brick by Brick should not be allowed anywhere near the real world, where wasting huge amounts of money comes with serious consequences. When is someone going to do the kindest thing and put it out of its misery?
There’s clearly a lack of clarity regarding the exact situation, but the delay doesn’t fully explain why the council would accept their bid and BH Live would start running the venue in advance of the contract being signed. Considering the Fairfield’s troubled history, establishing that the operator is highly-competent and committed to making a success of the venue seems crucial.
There’s a striking contrast with Bromley’s (council-owned) Churchill Theatre. There, in 2017, HQ Theatres outbid the mighty Ambassador Theatre Group in order become the operator, and they seem to have since revitalised the venue in some respects. It would be interesting to know if BH Live had any competitors in relation to the Fairfield.
Good point Mr Winchester.
It was never convincing that there were any other bidders for Fairfield than BH Live – I’m sure that the the Council couldn’t believe their luck that someone was willing to take it on!
And look what happened – it was run in exactly the same way as the old regime.
What was required was a VISION for Fairfield, the programming, and the building,
not just a tart-up!
Apparently most of the “big organisations” looked at Fairfield with a view to taking it on, but didn’t hang around. With the constraints and lack of ambition shown by the Council, we think BHL was the last and only one left. We never realised there were so many tribute bands around until most turned up at Fairfield – both prior to and since the so-called renovation.
Excuse my responding with the same message in two places but I have comments which relate to both articles.
It’s easy to criticise from an outsider’s point of view but I understand enough about business to know that there has been some strange decision making in the ivory towers of the council. Not least how it was deemed to be a good idea to franchise out the venue to a leisure centre company based 114 miles away in Bournemouth. Surely there were other tenders, and if not why not?
Secondly, the decision to appoint (in your words) ‘rookie in-house developers Brick by Brick’ to take charge of refurbishment works was ill-considered. Admittedly an overspend of £13million against an originally agreed budget of £30million may have been due to the removal of asbestos and complete renewal of pipeworks and electrics. But less naïve and more experienced project management would have immediately addressed such potential issues. ANY building 60 years old is likely to suffer from the same challenges.
As a result, with promised opening dates shifted several times, the idiocy of the eventual re-launch not coinciding with the re-opening of the underground car park and the scrapping of parking on the main forecourt, one had to wonder… is anyone at home in the planning department?
How on earth could the management know who and when to book events, and how could any marketing team know how to promote the venue itself and the programme, with the ongoing fear of cancellation hanging over them? And where were the audience expected to park? Hence the alleged ‘disappointing ticket sales’. Be fair.
With reference to your comment about “the cash-strapped council” not providing BH Live with any revenue funding for the venue, why should they? Rather like the London (Olympic) Stadium deal with West Ham United, the venue owners were only ever expected to maintain the bricks and mortar. They are NOT expected to prop up the Hammers if they fail to draw the crowds (pre-Covid and playing ‘behind closed doors’) for a mid-table clash with Burnley. If BH Live’s pockets are not deep enough to crisis-manage should the venue ever ‘go dark’ it speaks of something else.
It speaks of the poor management of BH Live who almost certainly intend to hand back the keys, having missed a number of deadlines to renew their contract, probably holding on in the hope of a hand out from the Arts Council. Which didn’t happen. That would have enabled them to have enjoyed a cash bonus on top of the furlough support from the Government, and then make for the hills. Or rather, the south coast.
Like a number of unscrupulous employers of late (eg BA and Ryanair) they were happy to enjoy the furlough bonus and then still plead poverty in laying off staff. In this case, 80 casual staff who were extensively trained in the running of front and back of house and now all of the contracted staff. So if they ever actually had any intention of removing the mothballs they would have to start recruiting all over again or use their army of life guards from their south coast empire to manage the place!
Shouldn’t somebody have pointed out to a leisure company with no experience of running a multi-arts centre that this was flawed logic? Maybe the surprisingly silent Conservative opposition? Are they in hibernation too?
Maybe someone at the “cash-strapped council” should put the cash-strapped leisure centre operators (check THAT out if you will!) out of their misery. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, it’s easy to criticise from the outside, but I’ve frequented The Fairfield for most of my local life and was very excited by the re-opening and contrary to the views of some who believe the programme was ‘uninspired’ I was very impressed by the quality of the output and the diversity of the resident contributing brands (especially LMP).
I WANT IT TO WORK.