EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
- Brick by Brick’s management of the refurbishment of the Halls has been subject to disputes with at least two leading contractors
- £3m grant to build an art gallery was diverted to pay for other work – with Tony Newman on the board of the funding body
- ‘Unfinished and incomplete’ – former Fairfield staff say the venue is not fit to re-open
Croydon Council failed to conduct any form of competitive tendering process before they put rookie developers Brick by Brick in charge of the £30million refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls, Inside Croydon has confirmed.
This crass mistake has already cost the borough’s Council Tax-payers close to twice the original budget – and it may have even jeopardised the future of the 60-year-old arts venue altogether, according to former senior staff who worked at the Halls during the brief period it was re-opened this year.
The decision to hand the task of overseeing the long-overdue refurbishment project of the Halls was taken at a meeting of the council cabinet in June 2016 – barely a year after the Labour-run council had set up Brick by Brick as a housing developer. At that point, Brick by Brick had not even built a garden shed, never mind supervised a complex multi-million-pound project to modernise and upgrade one of the council’s most valuable assets.
All council contracts – especially multi-million-pound ones – are supposed to be subject to a rigorous competitive tendering process. That the £30million refurbishment project never was could be regarded as the height of folly by the Labour-run authority, which last month was forced to declare itself effectively bankrupt after a series of bad decisions and wasteful “investments”, with Brick by Brick at the heart of many of them.
The admission by the council only came after a 14-month campaign by this website to seek an answer to a straightforward Freedom of Information request: “Please provide all reports and correspondence relating to the competitive tendering process conducted to appoint a lead contractor for the refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls.”
That FoI request was submitted on October 30, 2019, shortly after the Halls had been re-opened following the over-budget, over-running refurbishment, when a series of reports from staff and patrons of the Halls confirmed the unsatisfactory nature of the building works left behind by Brick by Brick.
The council stalled and delayed, even breaking the law, as well as providing (deliberately?) misleading and inaccurate responses (“We are unable to provide reports and correspondence relating to the competitive tender process”, they said on the record in November 2019) until eventually, three days before Christmas, they officially admitted that no competitive tendering process had ever been undertaken over this £30million project.
The theory behind the deal with Brick by Brick was that they would oversee the refurbishment of the Halls and eventually pay all costs out of the profits they would make from hundreds of flats that they would build on and around the site. The complicated property deal was recently described as “interesting one” by Chris Buss, the outside inspector appointed to investigate the operation of Brick by Brick.
A Katharine Street source suggests that one reason that the refurbishment work was not put out for competitive tender is that the council’s Labour leadership knew all along that experienced and reputable developers wouldn’t want to touch it. “They had a £30million budget for a £50million project,” said the source.
The Fairfield Halls “went dark” in June 2016, to allow builders on site for works which were only supposed to take two years. In the event, no significant works started on site for 12 months, as those in charge expressed surprise and shock that a 1950s-built arts centre should have asbestos within its structures – and this despite at least three extensive asbestos scoping reports being conducted on the Fairfield Halls by the council beforehand.
During the course of the project, two of the biggest contractors hired by Brick by Brick either quit or entered into a dispute over millions of pounds of fees.
And this year it emerged that Vinci Construction, the builders hired for the bulk of the construction work, were also in dispute with Brick by Brick over £9million-worth of fees.
While contractual disputes are not unknown in big construction projects, that two such significant and reputable service suppliers should express discontent is surely a reflection on the inexperience and lack of qualifications in such a situation held by Brick by Brick and its senior management, including “chief executive”, former council director Colm Lacey.
If Brick by Brick was so unqualified for such a job, how did Croydon Council come to hand it to the fledgeling developers?
Last week, Croydon Council finally came clean with an explanation.
“The original 2016 cabinet paper,” their FoI response stated, “sets out the background to the decision under point 3.16. We were not party to the competitive tendering process or any of the contracts that Brick by Brick entered into regarding the Hall refurbishment but did grant a Licence for them to carry out the work as this remains our asset.”
The cabinet report was prepared by the then assistant chief executive, Richard Simpson, with the responsibility falling jointly on councillors Alison Butler, the cabinet member for housing, and Simon Hall, in charge of the borough’s finances.
Hall resigned and Butler was sacked earlier this year in the midst of the council’s financial collapse, with much of the blame for the Town Hall’s problems being attributed to Brick by Brick’s failure to repay any interest, make any loan repayments or hand over any profits after nearly six years in operation.
In that 2016 cabinet report, the award of this important responsibility to Brick by Brick is passed off in a couple of sentences, almost as an afterthought. For Butler and Hall, their focus was clearly on the property speculation possibilities of building flats around College Green, next to the Fairfield Halls.
“The proposals presented in this report,” the preamble reads, “maximise the use of the council’s assets to deliver new homes…”, adding that the scheme would “Enable an innovative commercial model which will benefit the council financially and help meet savings targets,” as well as “Secures improved community facilities”.
That today, more than four years later, Brick by Brick has yet to start building work on the residential part of the scheme is another costly failure – in April 2020, they submitted and had approved revised plans which deliver much less affordable housing and have been criticised as an over-crowded site and much-compromised scheme.
The second version of their proposals was only necessary because Brick by Brick failed to secure the purchase of a key part of the site from Croydon College, as the relationship between the council and the further education college has become increasingly acrimonious.
In the 2016 cabinet papers, under the heading “College Green development”, Simpson’s report states, “The College Green development has been the subject of several previous cabinet reports and comprises a £30million investment into Fairfield Halls, a c200,000sq ft new college/university building and approximately 2,000 new residential units alongside new public realm, retail and leisure space.
“A hybrid planning application was submitted in February 2016 and it is due to be considered by planning committee in July/August 2016.
“As per the other sites suitable for immediate development across the borough, it is proposed to use the Brick by Brick structure to bring forward those elements of the College Green scheme where the council holds land interests and/or options.
“This will at least include Phase 1 (the refurbishment of Fairfield Halls, the initial residential development, the enabling works for the college facility and some public realm works) and Phase 2 (the delivery of the new college building, the redevelopment of the existing college land and the remainder of the public realm works).
“The process would involve the transfer of land interests of the relevant parts of the site to Brick by Brick under terms as set out in Part B of the report. Brick by Brick would complete the £30million package of improvement works to Fairfield Halls under licence.”
The report was agreed, as all papers presented to the council cabinet always are.
Lacey and Brick by Brick would then display utter contempt for the council’s scrutiny process by turning up for a committee meeting once a year – usually with the support of Butler – to deliver a “business plan” stripped of all its financial details, making it impossible for elected councillors to do their job.
From the summer of 2016, at the Fairfield Halls with Brick by Brick in charge, there were soon delays on site, whether due to asbestos or poor project management. Costs began to mount up, and several elements of the modernisation work which had previously been considered “essential” to bring the Halls into the 21st century were quietly dropped.
Funds for one part of the project were diverted elsewhere. It is why the Fairfield Halls is now an arts centre without an art gallery.
In July 2017, the Coast2Capital Local Enterprise Partnership agreed to provide Croydon Council with a grant of £14.23million towards works on the Fairfield Halls. Present at the Capital2Coast board meeting which approved this grant were Tony Newman, the then leader of Croydon Council, plus Councillor Mark Watson (then a council cabinet member), plus a presentation party including council officers Stephen Tate and Colm Lacey.
In the bid, £3million of the overall grant was earmarked for the creation of a
gallery space in the Halls’ underground car park.
That gallery was never built.
According to the council, they “entered into a revised agreement with C2C in April 2018 in regards to the grant funding that was awarded. Due to the revision to the agreement the council agreed that it will not spend the £3million C2C monies on the gallery, but reallocated the funding to other elements of the scheme.”
By April 2018, the Fairfield refurb project was already in difficulties, and clearly was not going to be finished on schedule in three months’ time. Newman, as a member of the Coast2Capital board, will have been aware of, if not actually party to, the decision to divert the grant fund from the art gallery.
The art gallery is one of a number of important facets of the refurbishment that were dropped to save money, and which sources at the Fairfield Halls fear have fatally compromised the refurbishment and made the venue no longer fit for purpose.
Improved stage access for the concert hall, integral to the project’s objectives to allow bigger and modern acts to perform in Croydon once again, was never undertaken.
In September 2019, the venue even re-opened without having replaced the badly worn-out seats in the auditoriums of the Ashcroft Theatre and concert hall, which had been supporting the bottoms of Croydon arts-lovers since the venue was opened in November 1962.
And before the refurbishment began, the 60-year-old artists’ entrance lift was taken out of service and condemned as unsafe, with the expectation that it would be replaced. Except that four years after works at the Fairfield Halls began, that old condemned lift remains, with no modern replacement.
Because of coronavirus, Fairfield Halls was forced to close in March, and there have been no public performances there since. The venue managers, BHLive, recently received a £2.5million Arts Council grant towards the Halls’ reopening, but they have refused to state how or when that might be.
Because of the botched building works, some of their erstwhile employees doubt it can ever happen.
“There’s lots of areas which were left unfinished and incomplete,” a senior staff member who was recently made redundant from the Halls told Inside Croydon.
“With the artists’ entrance lift condemned, I don’t see how they can realistically re-open the concert hall, because you can’t expect to lug instruments and equipment up and down stairs to the stage.
“There are building works unfinished and snagging issues all over the venue. The staff areas at the back of house are a disgrace – a real safety hazard.
“It’s all stuff that should have been taken care of by the project managers, but never was. To get just some of the vital improvements done, like access to the stage, could cost millions more. And that money’s not likely to come from the council now they’ve gone bust.”
And thanks to Messrs Newman, Hall and Butler, Croydon – with an arts centre with no art gallery – is London’s “Borough of Culture” in 2023.
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