The lack of activity in and around the Fairfield Halls and the return to the “bad old days” of tired programming dominated by derivative tribute acts and all-star wrestling is all because not enough people in Dorset are paying for gym sessions or going swimming in the municipal baths.
BHLive, the Bournemouth-based leisure centre operator appointed by Croydon Council to manage the Fairfield Halls, has reported a £2.5million loss in its annual accounts just published. They say that 10,000 memberships for the swimming pools and gyms that they manage along the south coast were cancelled or were unrenewed during the first covid lockdown.
BHLive’s leisure centre income was reduced from an expected £21million to £4million.
In the arts and culture side of the business, including Fairfield Halls, BHLive’s income fell from the anticipated £22.7million to £1.05million.
BHLive says that it has run down its reserve funds to just £1. Such financial troubles in Bournemouth can only raise fresh concerns about the future for Croydon’s prestigious arts centre.
The latest BHLive losses come on top of a deficit of £610,245 reported for the previous year, to the end of March 2020, which will have been incurred before the first lockdown will have had any real impact on their business of operating Bournemouth council’s entertainment venues and leisure centres.
BHLive’s 2020-2021 losses come despite the social enterprise seeming to grab at every piece of available funding since covid-19 hit businesses and entertainment venues.
As well as making use of furlough cash for what remains of its staff, BHLive also took a £5million business interruption loan from the government, business rates reductions, VAT deferral and a £2.5million grant from the Arts Council’s Culture Recovery Fund – which was supposed to include money towards the reopening of the Fairfield Halls.
The Arts Council grant was announced just days before BHLive laid off the majority of staff at the Fairfield Halls. BHLive is reported to have made 200 staff redundant across all its venues since the first lockdown.
BHLive has been managing the Halls since 2019, when they reopened following a council-funded refurbishment that went badly wrong and has cost Croydon at least £70million. That project is subject to a “value for money” review conducted by the council auditors, Grant Thornton.
Problems with the refurbishment work, and delays in its completion, saw Croydon Council make compensatory payments to BHLive of more than £1million between 2019 and August 2020, which will include some of the period covered in the latest annual report.
BHLive placed the Fairfield Halls into what they called “hibernation” when lockdown began in March 2020, and have been slow to reopen the south London venue fully since restrictions were eased.
It has yet to return to a full programme of shows and operations, across the concert hall, Ashcroft Theatre, performance space, cafés and bars.
Under the original operating licence granted by Croydon Council, BHLive were supposed to receive no subsidies from the council, but they were expected to produce the Fairfield Hall’s artistic programme from income received from ticket sales, sponsorships and catering revenues. A rich cultural mix including free lunchtime concerts and community-led arts programmes were promised, but have failed to materialise in the post-covid Fairfield Halls, where all-in wrestling is back among the often threadbare offerings.
In their annual report published this week, BHLive say that covid forced them to cancel or postpone 422 performances at the Fairfield Halls and other managed venues in Portsmouth and Bournemouth.
Michael Wright, in his chairman’s report, said, “BH Live reported a deficit for the year of £2,436,461. This deficit is solely due to the impact of the covid-19 pandemic.
“All our venues closed from March 20, 2020, as part of the national lockdowns and also local restrictions in Portsmouth and Bournemouth during December 2020. As a result, most leisure centres were closed for at least eight months of the year and when open subject to capacity restrictions whilst our cultural venues were effectively closed for the entire year.”
Elsewhere in the BHLive report, it stated, “Each partner council was supportive by committing finances and amending agreements in order to retain BH Live as their leisure and culture partner and ensure we would be able to deliver our business plan for them and their communities going forward.
“A major restructuring and redundancy programme was carried out, enabling a leaner future fixed staff cost.”
They had not foreseen the impact of a pandemic. “Prior to covid-19 an internal risk assessment deemed that the probability of all areas of the business being impacted by a significant loss in income and/or any unforeseen adverse circumstances at the same time as minimal,” the report said.
The company now aims to build up its reserves to £5million. “This will take many years to deliver and will affect business decisions ensuring that the rebuilding of reserves is a priority as we grow back the business,” said the report.
BHLive claims to be “confident” for its future operations. “The first quarter of 2021-2022 has seen the business return to profitability,” they said.
Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture 2023.
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