CROYDON IN CRISIS: While the cash-strapped council remains preoccupied with its finances, the once prestigious arts centre on the other side of Park Lane risks sliding towards cultural oblivion.
By our arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK
There are growing concerns that when Croydon Council awarded the contract for the management of the Fairfield Halls to Bournemouth-based leisure centre operators BHLive that they did not do their homework.
Two of the country’s leading theatre operators, Ambassador Theatre Group and HQ Theatres, had already pulled out of the process. BHLive had been the only bidders who did not require any kind of guaranteed financial subsidy from the council. It left them as the only bidders, but now their offer is beginning to look like it was one that the council bosses really should have rejected as being too good to be true.
Of course, covid and the lockdowns have had a devastating impact on the live entertainment business. Thanks to the blundering Brick by Brick, the Fairfield Halls did not reopen after its costly refurbishment until 15 months later than the council, and BHLive, had hoped and expected. Once they did open, in September 2019, they had barely six months before a covid-enforced “hibernation”.
But while music and theatrical venues across the country are now reopening under the conditions of a “new normal”, BHLive’s approach at the Fairfield Halls has been markedly different.
They now only open the venue when there are events being staged in the Ashcroft, Concert Hall or “The Wreck”, and even then it seems to be done with the utmost of reluctance. The repainted, revitalised Fairfield Halls after the refurb was supposed to place arts at the heart of the Croydon community, with free music recitals and exhibitions promised in the foyer’s open space, and BHLive making their money on the deal through lively and exciting new bars and restaurants.
But some arts professionals based in Croydon are expressing worries that, with the cash-strapped council clearly preoccupied with other matters, BHLive have been given a free pass to ignore their previous promises and so are letting the Fairfield Halls slide towards a cultural oblivion.
“Based down in Bournemouth, BHLive don’t see themselves as part of this south London community,” one concerned arts fan told me. “Their programme of week after week of tribute acts and tired old comedy routines demonstrates that.
“If they had delivered everything they promised in their bid, or in their press releases and on their YouTube videos, it probably wouldn’t matter so much. But they haven’t.”
BHLive has charitable trust status, but all nine of their trustees are Dorset-centric, with no one on the board to speak up for Croydon, even though the Fairfield Halls represents the biggest venue with the largest catchment area that is in the Bournemouth operators’ portfolio of swimming pools and exhibition centres.
“Does any of Croydon’s political parties know or realise what’s going on with the Fairfield Halls arts-wise? It certainly doesn’t look that way,” the source said.
“There’s local elections next May, who is going to make it a manifesto promise that they will insist on having at least three Croydon appointees on the BHLive board, to speak up for Croydon and the Fairfield Halls?”
Not that Croydon-based arts groups would necessarily be satisfied with that.
Others that have been in touch with Inside Croydon have already started to call for the BHLive deal to be jettisoned and for the Halls to be returned to more arts-based and understanding local management.
“At BHLive the operational management is led by a man who spent years at Greenwich Leisure Ltd leading tenders for swimming pools,” one Croydon source said. “In a management team of all white directors, none of whom have any experience in the arts, it is little wonder the jewel in our borough’s cultural crown isn’t shining.”
The first source, who has worked closely with the Halls in the past and asked not to be identified, said, “What has happened at the Fairfield is scandalous.
“The damage done to the reputation of the venue is severe.
“We have a world-class Concert Hall with no concert programme, we have a theatre with no reputable theatre programme and we have a foyer devoid of any community activity. This is wrong.”
They say that Croydon’s large arts community “has been hurt and let down by BHLive and the council”.
They say, “Wrongs need to be put right. Croydon won’t have a vibrant town centre for quite a few years, but it can have a vibrant night-time economy and arts centre. The money has been spent, the infrastructure is in place – we just need local management.”
The loss of confidence in BHLive appears absolute in the Croydon arts community.
“They will continually make promises but they will never deliver. This isn’t about dealing with the impact of covid. Barely weeks after opening the doors to one of the country’s largest muli-purpose arts complexes, and BHLive already appeared ready to cut staff, reduce security, closing the local box office.”
The source maintains that it was this level of “artistic differences” which saw the venue’s enthusiastic arts director, Neil Chandler, forced out 18 months ago.
“Corridors and foyer tables were frequently occupied with panicked-looking BHLive executives who were trying to work out why Fairfield wasn’t delivering the financial returns needed to support the group while their other out-of-Bournemouth venture in Portsmouth was haemorrhaging money.
“You only needed to stop by for an awful cup of their overpriced coffee to hear the conversations. Even the coffee they got wrong; Croydon is awash with amazing coffee shops and they open two cafés serving shit coffee, with no barista or fancy shots in sight – all because people in Bournemouth dictate what should be on offer.”
The replacement of Peter Gunn, BHLive’s first chief executive, with former GLL exec Chris Symons in April 2019 has not helped the artistic cause of the Fairfield Halls. Gunn did at least have some reputation and credibility in the industry.
There’s strong grounds to suggest that Symons’ appointment represented such a significant seachange in BHLive’s outlook and background that Oliver “Shit Show” Lewis, the council cabinet member supposedly in charge of arts, and the council’s ineffectual and not-missed director for culture, Paula Murray, should have called an urgent meeting with the operators’ new boss just to establish exactly what his company would be expected to deliver in Croydon.
Instead, the Fairfield Halls risks becoming nothing more than a cash-cow for the south coast operators’ wider business. After paying some staff through government-funded furlough over the first nine months of lockdown, several were made redundant and invited to reapply for their old jobs under reduced terms.
A £2.5million Arts Council covid recovery grant was made to BHLive, but neither the operators nor, worryingly, the grant donors have been able to explain how much of that cash is to be used in Croydon. The obvious fear is that the arts money has been diverted to keeping Bournemouth gyms and leisure centres operating.
“The Fairfield’s become the gift that keeps giving,” according to one former regular at the Halls.
“They’ve taken millions from Croydon Council, in furlough payments and from Arts Council England, but they have demonstrated precisely bugger all to Croydon as to why they deserved it.
“Croydon has been through one hell of a year, and I’m not talking about covid. The borough must come back stronger. The Fairfield Halls needs to be front and centre in the local election campaigns next year.
“Croydon’s Tories supported the old Fairfield Trust and Labour chastised them for wasting money. Labour had a point, but the Trust gave so much more back to the community than we are seeing now.
“We need our Croydon arts centre to be run by Croydon artists, performers and producers, not a bunch of fitness freaks and swimming pool lifeguards from Bournemouth.
“Bring back local management, a trust run for and by the arts community of our creative borough. A trust that delivers for the borough rather than takes.”
Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture in 2023.
Read more: Fairfield Halls’ £70m fiasco: ‘BxB didn’t know what it was doing’
Read more: Millions of questions for BHLive over Fairfield grant aid
Read more: Council paid £1m compensation for unfinished Fairfield Halls
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