Fairfield Halls’ £70m fiasco: ‘BxB didn’t know what it was doing’

The Fairfield Halls reopened more than a year late, £40m over-budget and unfinished

CROYDON IN CRISIS: Trade newspaper The Stage has described the five-year saga of the Fairfield Halls refurbishment as a ‘catastrophic mess’ and a ‘£70m fiasco’. Now, the centre’s former artistic director has broken his silence over the bungling of Brick by Brick

Neil Chandler, the venue director at the Fairfield Halls who quit his job less than six months after the council-owned arts centre was reopened, has finally broken his silence over the lengthy delays and multi-million-pound cost overruns that have plagued the centre.

Chandler has been interviewed by theatre trade paper The Stage, and delivers some withering criticism of the people behind the bungled refurb project, including council chiefs and, naturally, Brick by Brick.

According to Chandler,  “Brick by Brick did not know what it was doing.”

Rookie developers Brick by Brick, the council-owned housing company, were handed a £30million budget in 2016 and given two years to refurbish the 1960s-built venue. Now, apart from a brief six-month spell after a gala reopening ceremony featuring Dame Judi Dench in 2019, the Fairfield Halls has been closed for five years.

Mutual back-slapping: London Mayor Sadiq Khan, right, at the Fairfield reopening with discredited council leader Tony Newman

With covid-19 also having an impact on the venue’s operation and viability, except for one-off shows, the Halls are unlikely to host much before September, according to The Stage.

Even then, these will be mostly the kind of stale old tribute acts which the Fairfield Halls was so often criticised for before its closure.

Croydon is to be London’s Borough of Culture in 2023…

“This could have been an amazing arts centre but it has cost £70million of taxpayers’ money so far, and the taxpayers will not get the community venue that they should have got,” Chandler told The Stage.

“I really felt that I knew why it hadn’t worked in the past: it had a lot of historic debt and a building that wasn’t fit for the times. It needed a fresh start. It needed to engage with the community, and to reflect the current demographic of Croydon and its wider area.

“There was a lot of work to be done, given the fact that the old trust had gone bust, promoters weren’t happy with Croydon, and the community had fallen out of love with the venue.

Neil Chandler: a belated outbreak of frankness

“I spent three years building this project, building a team, publicly saying all the exciting things we were going to do.

“But Brick by Brick did not know what it was doing. We were having things cut left, right and centre.

“I was in those meetings and tried to be the diplomat. I took some big cuts on the chin, thinking: ‘Let’s just get the project over the line. As long as we’ve got a venue that works, we don’t necessarily need everything’,” Chandler says now,  in a belated outbreak of frankness.

The Stage report refers to a range of elements that were included in the original refurbishment plans, intended to update the venue and make it suitable for 21st Century acts, but which ultimately were never delivered, despite the vast expenditure on the project.

And among what The Stage describes as “a huge number of items” that vanished during the venue’s strip-outs were nearly 5 tonnes of fly weights – the sort of things of vital importance backstage, used to balance and lift stage curtains and scenery.

The Ashcroft Theatre’s historic old fire curtain has long gone, know one seems to know where.

Similarly, the 1,800-seater concert hall’s two Steinway grand pianos were removed in 2016, before the works began, never to be seen again…

By 2019,  all of the orchestra pit’s handrails had gone missing, too. “We ended up having to get temporary barriers in to stop people falling in,” according to an insider. Even the motors from the stage doors disappeared, “which resulted in crew having to winch them open manually for the first show”, The Stage reports.

Are you sitting comfortably? The Ashcroft Theatre reopened with 60-year-old seats

When technical crew entered the building about nine months before the reopening, some of the spaces were not watertight. Recent reports suggest that there are still leaks from the roof.

The site was running on temporary power. One person who worked there told The Stage: “Frankly, it was a shower of shit.”

Even after three postponements of the gala celebration evening, including the embarrassment of having to put off the Duke and Duchess of Wessex, by September 2019 and the long-delayed reopening, “The building was not ready,” according to The Stage.

It is a judgement which loyal readers of Inside Croydon reached much sooner than most theatrical critics attending, or Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, who unveiled a plaque to mark the occasion and offered back-slapping congratulations to Tony Newman, the now discredited leader of Croydon Council.

“You expect a few glitches when a venue re-opens after a period of closure, but this was dreadful,” one of our readers wrote.

“What on earth have they been doing since June 2016? It will be a while before we go again.”

Another dissatisfied customer complained that after paying £45 each for front row seats to witness “national treasure” Dame Judi’s stage appearance, all they got to see was an industrial metal grill left in place from the building works. 

What also emerged only after opening night was that, despite spending tens of millions on the refurbishment works, the audiences in those first few weeks were still being expected to sit on the Halls’ original, 60-year-old seats.

Cover shot: despite the problems with the Halls, the council’s propagandists proclaimed the reopening a triumph

“The seats that were taken out of the Ashcroft Theatre had been kept in storage and brought back in the same state because there was never a plan for new seats,” Chandler now admits.

“I sat there thinking: ‘I’ve got Dame Judi Dench opening this playhouse in a few weeks’ time and we’re going to have an audience sitting on seats that are ripped and dirty and smelling of fox piss’.

“People from Brick by Brick stood there on the opening night making speeches about how great they were, patting themselves on the back. It was just embarrassing. You wonder at what point they thought that building was complete?”

Eventually, new seating was installed (The Stage seems to suggest that this was paid for by the council).

Their report says, “With the lifts not working, Chandler was forced to contract extra staff to move furniture around the building.

“The security doors did not work, so security staff were employed to stand guard. The fire alarms kept going off, resulting in calls from angry residents in the small hours of the morning, the cancellation of a performance, and the postponement of a staff training day.

“Croydon [meaning the council] had to foot the bill for all these extra expenses.”

The torrent of spending didn’t end there, and nor has it finished even now.

In April 2017, the council appointed Bournemouth-based BHLive to be the venue’s operators. “Eyebrows were raised at this choice of operator considering its limited experience with arts venues,” The Stage states, resorting to massive understatement.

Fairfield’s concert hall: has lost its Steinway grand pianos, and will soon be back to staging stale tribute acts

The trade paper suggests that the vision of the Fairfield Halls as a community arts “hub” was swiftly dropped, with the venue achieving only 26 per cent occupancy – as was first reported last year by Inside Croydon.

Chandler’s departure came soon after.

Also as first reported by Inside Croydon, the council has been forced to make a series of compensation payments to BHLive because of the unfinished and unsatisfactory state of its venue, totalling £3.5million since January 2019, including £920,679 in “liquidated damages”,  effectively for breach of contract.

“BHLive desperately needed that money,” Chandler told The Stage.

“When you open a new venue, you need to have the money to be able to operate that venue for 12 months; you’ve got to give a business the opportunity to regrow.”

BHLive have the council “over a barrel”, according to Chandler.

“Croydon Council was signing over money to BHLive in a desperate attempt to make sure they didn’t walk away from the table.”

And Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture 2023.

Read more: Conflicts of interest, incomplete contracts, unlawful payments
Read more: £30m Fairfield Halls project never went to competitive tender
Read more: BHLive starts redundancy process for staff at Fairfield Halls
Read more: Brick by Brick has paid nothing to council

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This entry was posted in Arnhem Gallery, Art, Ashcroft Theatre, BH Live, Borough of Culture 2023, Fairfield Halls, Neil Chandler, Oliver Lewis, Sadiq Khan, Tony Newman and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Fairfield Halls’ £70m fiasco: ‘BxB didn’t know what it was doing’

  1. Pete Jenkins says:

    Chandler mentions the “Playhouse” (formerly the Ashcroft THEATRE.) What happened to the Playhouse then? All we see in future advertising are the mentions of the Ashcroft Theatre again. Coupled with the outside signage of Theatre. What a mess and another hefty expense no doubt?

    As for the general programming, what a load of rubbish. Not the sort of thing that Croydon expects or deserves. Get another copy of the “missing report” and sort out which heads have to roll. How much more do the taxpayers of Croydon have to put up with?

    From an outstanding venue with shows to savour, to a mediocre village hall set-up and this should be the flagship for the ” 2023 Borough of Culture” – what a comedy programme this is all becoming.

  2. mikebweb says:

    Well many residents would say ” we told you” before it all started. The car park is still closed, said to be so as the fountains are not finished – what fountains, where – no sign of them out front!
    The most successful thing that has happened in the last few years apart from the water like drinks (wine??) given away at the opening night, has been the COVID VACINATIONS!
    We, the residents, are SO PROUD of you – BbyB

  3. “Sort out which heads have to roll”. Does anyone really expect that any of the clowns at BxB or on the Council will be held accountable for this fiasco ? The experience of the past five years has clearly shown that no-one is responsible for anything, councillors or officers.

    • CentralCroydon says:

      You are wrong in saying that no-one is responsible for anything. There were clearly some people responsible for pissing £70m of taxpayers money up the wall.

  4. Presumably Chandler is completely blameless?

  5. What a wicked a wasteful mess! The prize pieces of the Riesco Collection were so;ld for this. A board representing Croydon communities should get together and work out how this venue can be opened up to maximise community use and serve the local communities.

    • Except, Charlotte, the money raised from the Tories’ illegal sale of part of the Riesco collection simply went straight into the general fund, never to be seen again…

  6. Lancaster says:

    ” Croydon is to be London’s Borough of Culture in 2023 ” …

    I presume this will be zombie knife wielding stabbing demonstrations in pedestrianised areas. Tours of Jo Negrini’s achievement of laying pavements; reviews of the councillors beloved ‘street art’ – graffiti to everyone else; and demonstrations on how to remove damp and mold from social housing.

    Borough of Culture – my ass.

  7. David Simons says:

    The drama continues. What a great piece of theatre this would make – we could stage it in the Ashcroft Theatre/Playhouse/piss snelling Fox Den! Chandler was employed long after the disaster of BXB took hold of the project and after the Bournemouth swimming club were given the (unsigned?) contract to operate the place. He left to save his sanity and reputation no doubt given the revelations in the article; he was the only person who seemingly had any experience.

    It’s a shame this shit show ‘Behind the Curtain’ wasn’t exposed in those YouTube videos Chandler helped to create.

    Let’s hope BH deliver everything Croydon wants and deserves, everything they apparently received millions of Arts Council funding for – time will tell, arts in Croydon will suffer once again and no one will be held accountable.

  8. gary gal says:

    oh boy i hate this company so much. there no good for croydon at all

  9. John Harvey says:

    I went to an opening event. Attendees were kept outside in the rain. When I asked why, I was told that no one could unlock the doors.

    I received no response when I pointed out that this seemed to be an admission that people could be trapped if fire broke out.

    Don’t go there until a comprehensive and independent safety audit has been made available

  10. Steven Lee says:

    I worked with Neil Chandler when he completely rebranded and most likely saved Woodville Halls, now The Woodville.
    He is without doubt an outstanding and visionary Arts Leader but he was bent over the barrel on this one. You hope he finds a venue worthy of his talents soon.

  11. Dave West says:

    The word in the musical fraternity is that the Steinway pianos (each worth tens of thousands), were given away to a private school.

    I’m also not sure what has happened to the organ which is renowned as a fine instrument and appears on numerous recordings.

    A pipe organ is a complex instrument with thousands of pipes and loads of moving parts that would need to be completely removed to protect it from dust and other building work. That’s a specialist and expensive task that would be beyond Brick by Brick or any dodgy removal firms known to councillors and would need to be entrusted to an organ builder.

    The organ world is fairly incestuous and it would be a potentially prestige project, yet no one seems to know who this was entrusted to. Does it even still work or is it now clogged up with asbestos dust and debris?

    • Pete Jenkins says:

      Harrison & Harrison from Durham built and looked after the Fairfield organ especially when the building was first closed for the so-called renovation and I guess that they still are. Andrew Scott who is Director of Music at St Michaels at West Croydon is understood to be part of the local team from H & H.
      It would be good to hear direct from Mr Scott (or Harrison & Harrison) about the current state of the Fairfield organ and if we will ever hear it played again.

  12. Anthony Miller says:

    “The Ashcroft Theatre’s historic old fire curtain has long gone, know one seems to know where.”

    That’s such a shame. As I remember it was illustrated at the bottom with the faces of great actors of the past and actors with links to Croydon like Roy Hudd. It was a small detail but I remember as I got older gradually recognising them… I think Alastair Sim was on there too and Max B Tree?

  13. Lewis White says:

    Perhaps the Fairfield safety curtain will be found up on the roof, ripped into some big patches to stop the rain coming in the holes. With screw drivers poked through the holes to keep the canvas in place.

    In a bizarre way, I really hope so, because at least then, this superb work of art– painted in 1982 — could be rescued, sewn back together, and restored. It was a fairly late work, one of the biggest paintings designe dand executed by Henry Bird (15 July 1909 – 16 April 2000), a Northamptonshire born artist, best -known for theatre scenery design and painting from the nude

    This is–or now, sadly maybe –was– a fine work, which enriched the theatre -going experience for Fairfeild audiences over To view the safety curtain, look at the cobalt blue sky, with muscular horses and swirling figures worthy of some of the best painters of the Renaissance– was a moment of joy, over before one had had the chance to work out all the portrait busts of Croydon’s most famous sons and daughters of the past, and figures connected with Croydon’s theatre and maybe other aspects of lfe.

    The portraits were characterful depictions, almost caricatures– the list includes Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Composer.

    One wonders what he would have thought about the person or people who “lost”, stole or gave away the Fairfield’s new Steinway piano, which was played for the first time in concert by John Lill, 20 September, 2011, and about those who cast a blind eye to the disappearance?

    Artist Henry Bird painted one more theatre curtain-at his native Northampton.
    The Fairfield curtain can be seen on a website hosted by Croydon Concil’s museum service. One hope that the latter still exists (unless the site is taken down by someone seeking to save a few coppers) .

    The site is The Fairfield Collection. go to
    http://thefairfieldcollection.co.uk/object/95101/ for the whole curtain
    and to a series of detailed images

    Web: http://www.museumofcroydon.com Collections catalogue online: http://museumofcroydoncollections.com/catalogues/index.php/museum-of-croydon

    and go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Bird_(artist)

    What has really happened to the curtain. Is it lurking in a big plastic bag under the railing-less stage?. Or was it burned in a paladin bin round by the back door?

    And who stole or gave away all that stage machinery?

    It seems a litany of incomptence, failure or maybe, even — theft?

    Who was charged with safekeeping of the safety curtain? Did not the Chief Philistines at Brick by Brick, at some time in the “planning” of the project, and in between lunching out with top architects, realise that this safety curtain was work of art, and needed to be placed in a place of safety, such as the Museum of Croydon ?

    I hope that someone has reported the outrageous “disappearance” of the curtain to the Met Police Fine Art theft squad. If not, another post-lockdown task beckons.

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