CROYDON IN CRISIS: The ‘fiasco’ of Brick by Brick’s bungled £70m refurbishment of the arts venue gets worse, with the latest admission of failures from a cabinet member. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Ollie “Shit Show” Lewis, the council cabinet member responsible for the Fairfield Halls, has admitted that in the course of the three-year and vastly over-budget refurbishment of the arts venue, Brick by Brick didn’t even manage to replace the 60-year-old centre’s windows.
The replacement of the building’s original windows – with modern double-glazing to help with the heating bills – was a key component of the planned works back in those cheerily optimistic days of 2015, when the council was told that the whole project would take just two years and cost a “mere” £30million.
Six years and another £40million (at least) later, and replacement windows are now admitted to be among the litany of upgrades and improvements that were promised would be delivered during the works, but never were.
Lewis was forced into the admission in an answer to a question from another councillor, though he did his utmost to dissemble and deceive, even trying to claim that “existing windows have been refurbished as brief” [sic].
But the brief was straightforward: to replace the venue’s windows.
A council report from October 2015 was signed off by the then council chief executive, Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, along with former deputy leader Alison Butler and the then cabinet member for art and shit, Tim Godfrey (Who he? Ed). What Brick by Brick was being asked to deliver was unambiguous.
“The design approach for the Fairfield Halls is practical and heritage-led. It currently proposes improving the appearance of the building by… Replacing the windows”, the report said.
In his response to a question from Conservative councillor Robert Ward, which has been published on the council website today, the best Lewis could offer was, “All existing window frames were stripped to the bare metal and redecorated both internally and externally.”
Which is nice. But a long way short of £70million nice.
Lewis’s response helpfully confirmed that new windows had been installed at the Fairfield Halls, in the new build sections “namely the southern Arnhem rebuild and the northern extension”. There is also “[n]ew glazing and doors to Level 2 roof terrace and bistro within existing building”. It is probably small consolation to the Council Tax-payers of Croydon, who will be picking up the bill for Brick by Brick’s crass incompetence, that they did at least use new windows in the new sections of the building.
The Fairfield Halls opened in 1962. Apart from the occasional necessary repair and reglazing, its windows have never been significantly upgraded.
When it began in 2016, the refurbishment project was intended to update and modernise the Fairfield venues, making them fit for use in the 21st Century.
The works were planned in meticulous detail, with an assessment report costing £600,000 by building consultants Mott MacDonald outlining what needed doing.
It’s impossible to say whether that report included recommending the replacement of all the old windows, because senior council officials now claim (oh so conveniently) that they have lost the Mott MacDonald report.
Now, despite his erstwhile colleagues’ unambiguous report in 2015 when they said that all the Fairfield Halls windows could and would be replaced, Councillor Lewis is trying to claim that this was not in fact possible.
“The existing windows have a glazing bed depth that is too narrow to incorporate double glazed units and due to both the buildings [sic] local listing and budget constraints they could not be replaced.”
Note that: “budget constraints”, on a project where we know that they went over-budget by at least £40million.
Some of that money appears to have been spent on putty. Yes.
Lewis’s lame response continues, “The window frames were comprehensively refurbished, which included de-glazing and re-glazing (in improved toughened laminated glass) some of the frames, including many of the glazed spandrel panels to east and west elevations where glass had failed/cracked, etc.
“Glazing refurbishment to the existing windows including the replacement of all window putty and large areas of failed hardwood timber beading as well as piecing-in new sections of galvanised steel mullions, transoms and cills where the existing had corroded/failed.
“All existing window frames were stripped to the bare metal and redecorated both internally and externally.”
Of the three Town Hall chiefs who delivered the 2015 Fairfield Halls refurbishment report, only Butler remains at the council. A cursory read through the document only serves to highlight how little of what was promised six years ago has actually been delivered – giving much credence to the trade paper The Stage’s recent headline which described the refurb as a “£70m fiasco”.
“The design will be of exceptionally high quality to enable a transformation of the building aesthetically and commercially, whilst being sympathetic to the original design and heritage,” the report to the cabinet stated.
“The aim is to create a beautiful, highly flexible arts building which is commercially self-sufficient.” Oh dear…
And it also promised that “The development will deliver: A scheme of national architectural significance”; “A unique and vibrant mix of uses including new homes, cultural spaces, educational facilities, offices, shops and restaurants”; and “A variety of public art and opportunities for creative expression – a modern, attractive and culturally flexible space for Croydon.”
Perhaps another councillor might want to ask Lewis what happened to all those undelivered promises, too.
Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture 2023.
Read more: Brick by Brick and the 18 documents officers want kept secret
Read more: Fairfield Halls project never went to competitive tender
Read more: Kakistocracy: Butler forced into £6m bail-out of Brick by Brick
Read more: A level of ineptitude which would be tolerated nowhere else
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Well I would say that the frontage that we have is BLAND and quite uninteresting! We were promised fountains and that was the reason for the car park not being finished as it is partly under the fountains..
Well we have neither fountains or car park!
SPeaking of windows can anybody find out what the refurb has cost and how the inside of the frames were refurbished without taking out the glass. Finally what was the quote for replacement windows against the refurbishment?
You do wonder where the money went. The lack of car parking is a problem when they want to hold events late at night and people will want to drive, not get a bus….
It must be great to have been a contractor appointed by Croydon council before it went bust.
Clueless councillors and incompetent senior officers asked no awkward questions and did what they were told, and like the fools they were and still are, quickly parted with our money.
What other explanation could there be? They knew what they were doing? That would mean they were on the take.
“The aim is to create a beautiful, highly flexible arts building which is commercially self-sufficient.”
Last thing I saw at Fairfield was that Mark Steel bloke just before the first lockdown. It was sold out. Mainly to middle aged, check shirt, jeans and parka wearing ex Labour voters but it was completely sold out.
Was the refurb worth £70 million of our money? Answer is I don’t know yet but I’m very happy they didn’t knock it down and flog it off to that incompetent money pit of a developer. The refurb deal is probably going to end up in court one way or another, and I hope we get to the truth and individuals responsible are held to account.
I loved the refurbished hall, the lighting and new carpets and whatever we have ended up with is still an amazing place and deserves to be commercially self-sufficient. It might be a bit brutalist but it fits right in and I’ve had loads of incredible nights here with friends crowd surfing Carter USM, stomping to the Levellers, Christmas ballets and even Mr Steel was mildly amusing.
I think we sometimes forget how much fun Fairfield offers us right in the middle of our own town. Seriously missed it. Use it or lose it.
“those cheerily optimistic days of 2015, when the council was told that the whole project would take just two years and cost a “mere” £30million”
I started in property over 50 years ago and this has been a journey from one example of to another those who should know better believing that the sector will provide money for old rope .
LBC’s major contribution is the demonstration that having a professional such as an architect in charge provides no vaccination against the infection
In the 1990s there was a joke doing the rounds
“Question – What is the definition of a “community group”? Answer – Two or more locals who believe that, if you plant a few trees in a town centre, you can sit back and watch enough money grow on the branches to solve all the community’s problems.”
The next variation on the theme is just getting off the ground. This month the government’s relaxation of regulations on commercial to residential conversions came into operation. Advisers are telling investors that there are incredible returns to be made. Croydon has empty commercial property. The consequences of this could match existing problems with fire safety.
In 2014, after so much of Croydon town centre’s office stock had been converted into rabbit hutch flats, the council applied a restriction which removed the rights of profit-hungry private developers to carry out such lucrative works.
When the Tories win back the Town Hall in May 2022, as we’re sure that they will, it will be a measure of how craven they can be to see how long it takes for them to remove that restriction.
The problem is that, at the moment, there is nothing on except weary and repetitive tribute acts.
Higher end groups and entertainment can’t use the Hall because the backstage facilities are now antiquated, outdated and not fit for purpose in this technological time. There wasn’t enough money available (!!!!!) to replace them.
Sure it looks good but until it gets a variety of acts and performers again it will never be like the old Fairfield….and that will only happen when more money is poured in backstage.
And that’s unlikely to happen under the council’s deal with BHLive.
The Bournemouth-based swimming pool managers were the only bidders for the operations contract who did not require an arts production subsidy, and so were awarded the deal. They believed that they could fund the entire operation, and make a profit, from ticket sales and the sale of warm beer and ham sandwiches.
Covid was not BHLive’s fault, but their unrealistic business plan was.
Other bidders – which we understand to include the operators of the successful Wimbledon Theatre – were realistic enough to realise that for a thriving arts programme, some subsidy would be required.
The Fairfield Halls is possibly the largest venue in the country without an Arts Council grant.
Which Croydon lost when the Riesco ceramics collection was flogged off…
Not entirely true, Anthony. The Museum of Croydon lost its Arts Council verification over the Tory bargain basement sale of the Riesco Collection. The Fairfield Halls has never had an on-going revenue grant from the Arts Council.
It really looks now, and I say this with great sadness, that the full upgrade of the Fairfield into a modern centre of entertainment will never ever be completed.
That will mean that it will only ever attract a narrow range of second-rank performers for whom there is not an eternal audience and the eventual result will be withering away of audiences, and ultimately replacement by yet more flats.
It will join the Blue Parrot in the graveyard of cultural failures.