Arts correspondent BELLA BARTOCK on the mounting scandal at the council-owned arts venue, where fears grow that it might never reopen
The Arts Council has told Inside Croydon that they are powerless to intervene after BHLive, the social enterprise appointed to run the council-owned Fairfield Halls, laid off the last of its full-time staff just days after receiving a £2.5million grant intended to help the venue reopen after covid-19.
According to some former staff members, they fear that the Fairfield Halls may never reopen due to the unfinished and poor standard of some of the controversial refurbishment works carried out at the venue.
Former staffers at the Fairfield say that they have been told by senior management at BHLive that they will be unemployed for just nine weeks, and that they could then be re-hired in the New Year – though they fear on much-reduced terms.
BHLive was appointed by Croydon Council to manage the Fairfield Halls, with its concert hall and Ashcroft Theatre, in 2017. But by March of this year, according to the council, they had still not signed their operating lease.
The Halls reopened in September 2019 after a three-year, £43million-plus refurbishment, but because of coronavirus they went into lockdown in March. There has been no announcement from the Bournemouth-based operators about when they might reopen.
Sources at the Town Hall suggest that although the agreement with BHLive was that they would receive no revenue funding from Croydon Council – their business was to survive on ticket and catering revenues – they have already been given at least one substantial loan from the council to help cover costs during the covid-19 pandemic.
BHLive, who specialise in managing leisure centres and conferences on the south coast, are understood now to have submitted a request to Croydon’s bankrupt council for more money to save the prestigious arts venue.
The Arts Council announced the £2.5million grant for BHLive from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund at the end of October. But on October 31, the last of Fairfield Halls’ full-time staff were handed their P45s. BHLive’s management refused to consider using the government’s furlough scheme, even though some staff offered to pay their own National Insurance and pension contributions.
The grant for the Fairfield was not made through the London and south-east regional Arts Council but through the south-west region, with the total amount intended to cover two BHLive theatrical venues in Dorset as well as the Fairfield Halls.
Both the Arts Council and BHLive have refused to reveal any details of how the grant is supposed to be spent.
According to an Arts Council spokeswoman, “The purpose of the Culture Recovery Fund is to help maintain England’s cultural ecology by supporting culturally significant organisations which were financially sustainable before covid-19 but are now at imminent risk of failure and have exhausted all other options for increasing their resilience.”
Sources close to the Fairfield Halls, which has been open for barely six months since 2016, suggest that to describe it as “financially sustainable” might be stretching a point. Before its closure, under a different management regime, the venue had developed a reputation for staging out-dated stand-up comedians and tribute acts. In the months after last September’s reopening, the venue was operating on 26 per cent capacity ticket sales.
The Arts Council spokeswoman said, “The central aims of the Fund are to enable cultural organisations to reopen or restart their operations, where appropriate, or operate on a sustainable, cost-efficient basis, so that they are able to reopen at a later date if, for example, reopening under social distancing is not permissible or does not represent a value for money approach.”
While staff at Fairfield Halls called on the management to open their recently re-fitted bars and restaurants when the first lockdown was lifted, or to offer pay-per-view streamed concerts from the Halls, BHLive opted to do nothing to engage with a culture-starved audience. Instead, they cancelled their contract with their piano supplier: there are now no concert pianos at the Fairfield Halls.
Of the award of millions of public money to BHLive, the Arts Council says, “This was a demand-led fund, with extremely tight criteria set by government to protect public money; funding was only awarded to applicants if they could demonstrate they were at risk of no longer trading viably before the end of the financial year.”
Asked if they might intervene with BHLive after being informed of the redundancies to staff at their arts venues, the Arts Council spokeswoman said that they could not, but did say that the quango would monitor how BHLive spent the money.
“Over 2000 organisations of all sizes and types across the country have been awarded funding so far,” they said.
“The criteria to be awarded a grant are rigorous. All applicants had to demonstrate they were at risk of failure in this financial year and that they’d pursued all other forms of alternative finance. It is a legal requirement that grant recipients may only spend their grant on the activity they outline in the application. We monitor how the money is spent, including commissioning independent audits.”
BHLive has not replied to repeated requests for comment.
Bankrupt Croydon is the “Borough of Culture” in 2023.
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