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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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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