CROYDON IN CRISIS: Somehow, our cash-strapped council has managed to find a spare million to hand to the under-performing operators of the town centre’s arts venue, thanks to the recommendation of a new employee of The Campaign Company. EXCLUSIVE By STEVEN DOWNES
Passed without much, if any, comment at last week’s council cabinet meeting, just 48 hours before Croydon was hit with a second Report In The Public Interest from their unimpressed auditors, was the decision to spend another £1.291million on the Fairfield Halls.
And this payment is to be made to an organisation who Croydon Council agreed to go into partnership with for the specific reason that they would not be charging anything for managing the town centre’s arts complex.
Coming in the week that Grant Thornton exposed the £67.5million cost to Croydon Council of the bungled refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls, which remains unfinished and incomplete six years after the project began, and this latest seven-figure payment to BHLive may yet prove to be another misjudgement and example of mismanagement by the Town Hall leadership.
That this matter did not cause more of a fuss is undoubtedly because it was seen to merit just a brief, five-line item in a register of “investments” by the council, on a night when councillors were supposed to be wading through nearly 600 pages of reports on the 2022-2023 budget, benefit cuts to the borough’s most vulnerable, and a host of other fine detail matters which really ought to have been discussed over twice or even three times as long as they were granted.
Item 5.1.1 of the official council report also included a massive error, unspotted and uncorrected, a typo that managed to add £180million to the proposed spend.
That this error slipped through at all is further demonstration that what’s left of the council’s staff are overworked to the point that they cannot perform their duties properly, and further demonstration that cabinet member Oliver “Shitshow” Lewis fails to read, and proofread, council papers that relate to his responsibilities.
The spending item was Lewis’s responsibility as the cabinet member for culture.
Under “Covid recovery for BHLive contract variation”, it provides for £1.3million to be paid to the Fairfield Halls operator. Basically, bailing out BHLive for the losses that they are incurring through only partially reopening the arts venue.
At the core of the fiasco that has been the Fairfield Halls refurbishment according to the RIPI was the decision to put Brick by Brick, a company without any experience or expertise in large-scale refurbishment works, in charge of it.
Likewise, one of the rapidly emerging problems around the management of the Fairfield Halls and its artistic programme has been the decision by Croydon Council to put BHLive, a company which mainly runs swimming pools and leisure centres on the south coast, in charge of it.
When BHLive was awarded the Fairfield Halls management contract, they were the only bidder who promised to take on the task at zero cost to the council, saying that they would generate enough funds from running the shows, bars and restaurants that there would no longer be the need for a council-funded subsidy.
Before the Halls closed for the refurb, the council had been providing around £1million per year in subsidy towards its arts programme.
A rich cultural mix including free lunchtime concerts and community-led arts programmes were promised, but they have failed to materialise in the post-covid Fairfield Halls, where all-in wrestling is back among the often threadbare offerings.
The Halls re-opened after the controversial refurbishment in September 2019, more than a year late. According to the Grant Thornton Report In The Public Interest last week, it was Jo Negrini, the then council chief exec, who in March 2020 ordered BHLive to place the Halls into “hibernation” for a full year.
Inside Croydon has reported numerous times over the past two years how BHLive has gamed the funding regime through the covid crisis, taking furlough payments for staff and Arts Council grants as well as pay-outs from Croydon Council while the venue remained largely closed to the public. BHLive is reported to have made 200 staff redundant across all the arts venues it manages, in Croydon (where there were around 80 full- and part-time staff laid off) and in Bournemouth and Portsmouth.
The Halls have struggled since re-opening. Ticket sales following the royal gala celebration were dire. Then the artistic director quit.
BHLive refused to respond to questions from Inside Croydon and the theatre trade paper, The Stage, about how they intended to use the millions of pounds they received in covid grants from the Arts Council.
The Bournemouth-based leisure centre operator reported a £2.5million loss in its annual accounts for 2020-2021, the first year of covid. They say that 10,000 memberships for the swimming pools and gyms that they manage were cancelled or were not renewed during the first covid lockdown.
The accounts showed that their 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.
As Inside Croydon reported exclusively, the problems with the Fairfield Halls refurbishment and delays in its completion saw Croydon Council make compensatory payments to BHLive of more than £1million between 2019 and August 2020.
Now, it appears, “Shitshow” Lewis has got Croydon’s cash-strapped council to hand the swimming pool managers another £1.3million.
Lewis, though, is not always quite so generous when handing out other people’s money.
In another section of last Monday’s marathon cabinet meeting, Lewis – a protégé of disgraced former leader Tony Newman, and sometime acting as his golf caddie – was allowed to demonstrate his utter contempt for large sections of the borough.
In a report under Lewis’s name about the doomed fate of Purley Pool – the only council-run leisure centre in the south of the borough, and the only one not to reopen following the first covid lockdown – it said, “Following the six-week public consultation it is recommended that Purley Leisure Centre closes permanently.”
So much for public consultations, eh?
More than half of respondents – 54per cent, which seems somewhat on the low side – wanted the centre to be reopened.
Lewis’s report even conceded, “It is clear from the consultation feedback that resident who live in the area valued Purley Leisure Centre…”, note that devious use of the past tense.
“Although feedback was clear from residents that their preferred options were to invest in new leisure facilities or reopen the pool, given the long-term financial position of Purley Leisure Centre…”, it was part of a cross-subsidy arrangement with operators Greenwich Leisure involving the borough’s other leisure facilities, “… and the capital works required to bring it back to full operation, it is recommended that residents use alternative leisure facilities at Waddon, New Addington, and Monks Hill, as well as other venues across the borough.”
Lewis’s sneering dismissal of the demand for better facilities in Purley and elsewhere has had some consequence.
Not a single branch Labour Party in the borough considered him good enough to represent them as a candidate in May’s local elections after the New Addington ward he has claimed to represent since 2014 refused even to short-list the cabinet member for their selection meeting.
Lewis has been noticed as playing a prominent part recently with Val Shawcross’s campaign to win election as Croydon’s first elected Mayor, though such a presence risks undermining efforts for any kind of “clean break” with the failed and discredited former Town Hall regime.
Besides, Lewis also has a new job, according to a change of his public declarations made in October.
So his failure to win over local Labour Party members should mean that Lewis, profligate with public money and the closer of public pools, will be able to focus more of his otherwise undiscovered talents on working for The Campaign Company, the strategists and lobbying firm that was set up by David Evans, the less-than-popular General Secretary of the Labour Party. Cosy.
Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture, 2023.
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