CROYDON IN CRISIS: Moves to take the management of the troubled arts centre out of the hands of Bournemouth-based BHLive are being resisted by Labour politicians. EXCLUSIVE by STEVEN DOWNES
Senior officials and the Labour cabinet member in charge of the arts at Croydon’s cash-strapped council failed to take up an offer of a £5million cash investment for the Fairfield Halls, intended to help revive and restore the arts centre’s reputation and give it a kickstart to produce a broader, better-quality set of shows than those being offered by the current operators.
That’s the shocking revelation made by Neil Chandler, who for almost three years, until February 2020, had been in charge of the Fairfield’s artistic programme, working for council-appointed operators, BHLive.
In a devastating criticism of the council’s mishandling of the Halls since they re-opened, and Bournemouth-based BHLive’s blatant disinterest in the south London venue, Chandler has told this website that he managed to raise finance that could have transformed the Fairfield’s performances and events from the tissue-thin schedule dominated by tired tribute acts that is currently on offer.
The 1950s-built Fairfield Halls were closed in 2016 for what was supposed to be a £30million, two-year modernisation. But after taking 15 months longer than promised and costing £37million more than budget, the Halls re-opened in September 2019 with the refurbishment unfinished and the required works incomplete. The circumstances surrounding the over-spend by the council’s failed development firm, Brick by Brick, is now the subject of a fraud investigation.
The council-owned venue had been put into the hands of BHLive, who promised to provide a 24/7 artistic hub, complete with new restaurants and bars, free lunchtime music recitals and community-led dance and drama performances.
But after the building delays, that promise of a bright future using art to help revive the town centre swiftly turned sour, and leisure centre operators BHLive pulled the plug on many aspects of the original vision, which had been developed by Chandler.
Within five months of the re-opening, Chandler had left his job. BHLive instead started putting together a package of stand-up comedy tours and all-in wrestling, just as the first covid lockdown hit.
The operators spent the next year with the venue in self-declared “hibernation”, while collecting millions in furlough money for their staff from the government (before making the majority of their workforce redundant), as well as covid recovery grants from the Arts Council, and compensation for building issues from Croydon Council.
Chandler maintains that it did not need to be that way – and claims that while other Mayoral candidates have called for the contract with BHLive as the Fairfield Halls operators to be cancelled, Labour’s Val Shawcross has resisted such calls out of fear that sacking the Bournemouth-based leisure centre business would only reveal more scandals over her party colleagues’ mismanagement of the borough’s principal cultural asset.
Chandler says that after leaving BHLive in early 2020, he was actively encouraged by “senior council officials” to put in a bid to take on the management of the Halls.
“I worked with backers to raise £5million and developed a business plan to establish a new, locally-based trust and to remove BHLive in the process.”
Chandler has correspondence between himself and Shifa Mustafa, the council’s then executive director of “Place”, from August 19, 2020. The date is significant, since it is just before Jo Negrini, the controversial council chief executive, jumped ship. Within six months, Mustafa had become one of five executive directors at the council to be suspended.
“Fairfield is an arts centre,” Chandler’s letter to Mustafa said. “It should have been open throughout the pandemic, serving food to the community from its kitchens and takeaways from its café, it should have been the centre of the council operation to lead the crisis.
“Instead, it has become invisible. It has hibernated.
“Where it could have presented live-streamed arts events and concerts from the concert hall, it failed. This is very sad.
“If BHLive haven’t signed their lease and don’t have the appetite or the expertise to operate Fairfield then this could be the perfect opportunity to take the venue back and award it to a local trust to operate.”
Chandler, a former senior BHLive employee, remember, continued, “BHLive never wanted Croydon, there is no industry experience in the senior team… I left because they wanted to operate the venue in the same way that they run Bournemouth Pavilion and I knew that was wrong…
“Now is the ideal opportunity for Croydon to cut them loose and limit the damage to the 2023 Borough of Culture.”
The email included Chandler’s carefully costed business plan. Mustafa replied, seeking a meeting with Chandler together with Paula Murray.
Earlier in the year, Chandler had gone for lunch at Murray’s home in Brighton, where he was effectively “ambushed” when he discovered that Oliver Lewis, the Labour councillor with cabinet responsibility for the arts, was also a lunch guest.
It was here that the notion of installing alternative management was discussed. When asked if Lewis knew about the £5million funding towards a new management for the venue, Chandler told Inside Croydon, “Oh yes. Of course.”
But the deal broke down.
“Following an inexcusably long period of silence from the council, our backers reduced their offer before walking away altogether.”
Chandler has revealed that the finance came from associates of Phoenix Pianos, the Sevenoaks-based company he had worked with when running the Fairfield Halls. The offer included providing pianos for the centre, plus concert-standard Steinway and Bösendorfer grand pianos.
Richard Dain, the founder of Phoenix, had felt very badly treated in June 2020, when BHLive returned the instruments – some in a badly damaged state – cancelling the five-year hire agreement at the Fairfield at short notice and with minimal compensation.
“All Phoenix really wanted was a piano academy and a thriving concert hall and arts centre,” Chandler says.
“Paula Murray was initially told of £1.5million and a request to have it matched by Prudential borrowing. We then sought £5million to exclude Prudential borrowing.
“It was all ignored.”
Chandler remains convinced that for the Fairfield Halls to have a thriving future as a leading arts centre, BHLive needs to go and be replaced by a trust formed by Croydon-based arts interests.
He has been encouraged by the support this move has received from five of the Mayoral election candidates. But the refusal of Val Shawcross, the Labour candidate for Mayor, to back such a proposal is a cause for deep concern for Chandler.
He says that Shawcross has not supported such a solution “probably because it was her party that put BHLive there in the first place following a disastrous procurement process akin to the one that saw Brick by Brick appointed as project managers for the heritage-led refurbishment”.
Chandler told Inside Croydon, “It is the Labour Party that signed off millions more of Croydon tax-payers’ money to keep BHLive afloat during the pandemic, paying a fee for them to caretake the building while council employees were actually doing the job.
“In effect, the Labour council paid to keep the south coast-based operators and not the Croydon-based operation in business.
“Labour won’t put BHLive on notice because they are fearful of the fall-out. They know that more skeletons are likely to come out of the cupboard. Val Shawcross is desperate to draw under the last few years. It seems clear to me that it was the same fear of revealing more hidden secrets about the deals that have been done which forced Shifa Mustafa to ignore the offer I made to refinance and administer the venue.”
Read more: £67m arts centre – with no art gallery and few performances
Read more: Conflicts of interest, incomplete contracts, unlawful payments
Read more: £30m Fairfield Halls project never went to competitive tender
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