EXCLUSIVE: Our arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, on the mounting scandal surrounding the operating company in charge of the Fairfield Halls
Within days of being awarded a £2.5million government grant intended to help the arts venues that they operate through the covid-19 lockdown, BHLive, who manage the Fairfield Halls, laid off the last of their full-time staff at the Croydon venue.
Around 30 staff, in senior, full-time jobs at the Fairfield Halls, have been made redundant by BHLive since August, without the Bournemouth-based social enterprise making any attempt to use the government’s furlough scheme now that it has been extended to next March. The last of the P45s were handed out at the end of October.
These follow the 80 part-time and casual staff who were “let go” by BHLive in June.
Former Fairfield Halls workers who have spoken to Inside Croydon have expressed their disgust at the way they have been treated by BHLive, and raised serious concerns about the future of the council-owned venue.
The Fairfield Halls reopened in September 2019, after a controversial three-year refurbishment that cost £43million, only to be forced to close again in March this year because of coronavirus.
Last month, after BHLive had been handed the grant from the Arts Council’s Cultural Recovery Fund, Chris Symons, the company’s chief exec, told the Bournemouth Echo: “This much-needed award will secure the future of cultural events for the communities we serve. We will be able to retain some of our talented team.”
Tell that to the last of the Fairfield employees who were made redundant last month. A handful of more senior employees were on a notice period which ended on October 31.
As BHLive was given the Cultural Recovery money on October 24, the handful of staff remaining were hopeful that the cash would grant them – and the Halls – a reprieve, especially as the government also announced an extension to the furlough scheme.
But BHLive went ahead with the redundancies regardless, to the obvious dismay and disgust of the staff affected.
One told Inside Croydon that as part of their consultation process, they were asked to come up with as many ideas as they could of ways to keep the Fairfield Halls running during lockdown in an effort to save their jobs.
“The ideas ranged from socially distanced bars, takeaway food, offering the space to schools as an extra educational facility,” the Fairfield Halls insider said.
“They were ideas that would benefit the community, which is what the Fairfield Halls are for. The management dismissed all these ideas, though.”
Inside Croydon approached the BHLive press office and Symons for comment. There had been no response by the time of publication.
In a statement issued by BHLive when it received the Arts Council grant, they said it “…will enable us to meet ongoing costs while our venues are in hibernation and assist us in getting our venues ready and covid-secure – providing essential reassurance for our customers and colleagues”.
It remains to be seen what this will mean for the Fairfield Halls.
The grant was allocated to BHLive through the Arts Council’s south-west region, which has refused to release any details of the grant application and how much of the £2.499,000 was allocated for the Fairfield Halls. Nor has BHLive revealed how much of the grant it intends to spend in Croydon.
Last week, BHLive was criticised by former casual staff at their venues and leisure centres on the south coast when it refused to put the zero-hours contract workers on the furlough scheme because the company would have to pay their National Insurance and pension contributions.
Some staff in Croydon even offered to pay their own NI and pensions, if BHLive would apply for the furlough scheme to meet 80 per cent of their salaries. BHLive refused, saying that this “did not fit in with their business model”.
It was suggested to some staff by management from Bournemouth that they would only be laid-off for nine weeks “as they would then be looking to re-recruit the majority of their staff around the New Year, although they would be renegotiating their contracts at this time”.
“We found this to be most disgusting and unfair, and has made the situation worse.”
There are also growing concerns generally about the future of the Fairfield Halls.
Despite being awarded the contract to run the venue in 2017, BHLive had failed to sign their operating lease for the Fairfield Halls by March of this year, according to the minutes of a Croydon Council meeting. With the Concert Hall and Ashcroft Theatre “dark” for the past eight months, it seems unlikely that BHLive will have addressed their contractual situation in the meantime.
And while other arts venues in the West End and around the capital have been making tentative plans for “remote” Pantos and other performances into 2021 to finally get their businesses up and running again, BHLive has made no firm announcement about how it will reopen the Fairfield Halls, helped with all that lovely Arts Council lolly.
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