Mayor has weeks to save Fairfield Halls and Borough of Culture

It is symptomatic of BHLive’s lack of real connection with the borough in which they are supposed to manage its largest arts venue that they chose the day of the Croydon local election results to make the announcement of the 2022 Fairfield Halls pantomime.

Bright future?: not if BHLive remains in charge of the Fairfield Halls, according to Croydon’s arts sector

It was as if the executives running the Bournemouth-based leisure centre operators have no real interest in the fate of the Fairfield Halls – which, according to senior sources with connections to the arts venue, is exactly the case.

“We were told that in meetings held just before the first covid lockdown, after the Halls had just had its re-opening, one of BHLive’s company’s directors said that he believed Croydon is taking all of the business’s money and resources and they questioned why a Bournemouth charity is spending all of its money outside of Dorset,” a source working with Croydon’s arts groups told Inside Croydon.

“It was not long after that that they got rid of Neil Chandler as artistic director and began to run-down the arts programme and look at dumbing down by bringing in things like all-in wrestling.

“Given BHLive’s true approach, you have to wonder what the future holds for the Fairfield Halls.”

The council-owned Fairfield Halls was once the pride of Croydon. But since its closure in 2016 for what was supposed to be a two-year refurbishment, it has become the centre of controversy and scandal, that £30million project seeing costs spiral to nearly £70million, with many of the major upgrade jobs either not finished or never even started.

A bit hooky: this year’s Fairfield panto offering is described as ‘terrible’ and ‘formulaic’

And since the re-opening of the Halls in September 2019, covid has become a handy excuse for the council-appointed operators BHLive to offer only a lacklustre and uninspiring programme, with a succession of “dark” nights, with no performances at all at the Ashcroft Theatre, concert hall or The Wreck venue, and with the expensively equipped bars and restaurants empty.

The Fairfield pantomime was always an important money-maker for the venue, with its near-month-long run of hoped-for full houses helping to subsidise productions through the rest of the year. Peter Pan – The Return of Captain Hook, this year’s production, will need to deliver something of West End calibre quality, with tickets for a family of four costing £130 before anyone shells out for fares or parking, meals or programmes.

BHLive’s critics in the local arts community describe the Fairfield is offering as “a terrible, formulaic pantomime” that has “no point of difference” with nearby suburban theatres in Bromley and Wimbledon. Last December’s Croydon panto was panned for exactly the same shortcomings.

“Surely one of the country’s largest art centres could deliver something more creative and inspiring for Christmas?” one source said.

Of course, BHLive can boast they’ve had sell-out shows. Comedy sells anywhere and big-name comedians will always be inclined to perform at a 1,800 seat venue – Jack Dee’s Croydon appearance later this month is a case in point.

One night only: comedian Jack Dee can draw a big audience. But what about the rest of the week?

Venue hires by the community ought to sell well, too, but when you surcharge the amdram or choral groups for first aid and towels, the chances are that you will drive away local organisations, instead of nurturing them.

BHLive’s grand panto announcement got drowned out in the coverage of the scramble for Town Hall seats and the election results for Croydon’s first elected Mayor.

The multi-million Fairfield fiasco and the growing concerns about BHLive’s semi-detached management of the venue both became an issue at the election.

Yet it was signal of the management company’s complacency that, when all eight Mayoral candidates were at the Halls for the final hustings of the campaign, BHLive’s chief exec, Chris Symons, didn’t bother to show up to listen to what they might have to say.

Well-placed sources suggest that this simply typifies Symons’ and the company’s disinterested attitude towards the Fairfield Halls: it’s far too remote from their core leisure centre business in Dorset to be a matter warranting any serious consideration.

“And that,” according to our source, “is why the new Mayor needs to act promptly to rescue the Fairfield from the slow, lingering death it is undergoing with BHLive’s dead hand on the controls.”

Inside Croydon understands that since the elections, meetings have been held between a range of interested parties over the future of the Fairfield Halls, with Croydon’s status as London’s Borough of Culture in 2023 adding extra urgency to the discussions.

Croydon was awarded the Borough of Culture by Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, soon after he’d attended the re-opening of the Halls in September 2019. The Fairfield Halls was always meant to be a “jewel in the crown” of Croydon’s artistic offering in 2023. Today, that appears nothing more than a pipedream.

The possibility of replacing BHLive at the Fairfield Halls with a local arts trust is one of the options being considered, although so far the incumbents have been making all the right noises about wanting to up their game.

BHLive have even promised to deliver a business plan before the end of June.

“How much longer do they need?” one incredulous source said.

“They were appointed in 2017. That they don’t have a business plan in place today, approved by their clients, the council, is appalling, and a shocking reflection on those in charge of the council until very recently.

“BHLive took millions from the government and Arts Council in furlough payments and covid grants, and millions more from the council in compensation payments for the shabby refurbishment work, but they did nothing with that money for the Halls or to prepare anything resembling an artistic programme.

“BHLive are now trying to blame the council for their own shortcomings, but while Wimbledon, Bromley and other south London venues have been up and running post-covid with fullish programmes, the Fairfield has barely got started, its money-spinning bars and restaurants remain closed, and they are still trying to scrimp on costs by running the place with only a skeleton staff.

“Croydon Council may be to blame for many things, but how the Halls is being run, and being run-down, is all down to BHLive now.”

Poor fit: BHLive CEO Chris Symons is more at home in a Dorset gym than a Croydon concert hall

Back in the heady days when the council had money – or at least, thought it had money – part of the “ambition” for Croydon espoused by the likes of chief exec Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, the now-discredited council leader Tony Newman and the Town Hall’s arts director Paula Murray was the idea that they had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvigorate the borough’s cultural landscape and inject some much-needed focus to the town centre’s night-time economy.

That the council failed to achieve this goal spectacularly can be seen every day at the newly created wasteland alongside the Fairfield Halls, what used to be known as College Green, but which has become another victim of the development blight delivered upon the borough by Negrini and her failed housing company, Brick by Brick.

Recent efforts to wrest control of the Halls from the hands of BHLive have been thwarted. As Inside Croydon reported previously, even an offer of £5million in funding from a consortium headed by the venue’s former artistic director, Neil Chandler, was turned down. Chandler championed a return to a local trust.

The downside to taking the Halls effectively back “in-house” is that there will be cost implications at a local authority without a brass farthing to spare. But those who are arguing for the switch say that Croydon can’t afford to allow BHLive to keep short-changing the borough with sub-standard arts offer at the Fairfield.

During the election campaign, the return to a trust was backed by five of the candidates for Mayor, though notably not by Labour’s Val Shawcross – another area which betrayed her stated aims to “re-set” and find a “New Direction”, and suggested to some that unravelling the BHLive deal might expose more skeletons in her party’s Town Hall cupboards.

As if the money squandered on the refurbishment by Brick by Brick was not bad enough, Inside Croydon has learned that at least £2million was also handed by the council to BHLive to fit out the venue ahead of the 2019 re-opening.

Much as with the disastrous appointment of Brick by Brick to manage the refurbishment project, this was done in a deliberate manner to circumvent procurement rules.

Furniture, theatre equipment, and an oversized and over-specified kitchen were all purchased by BHLive, with the invoices then handed over to the council for payment. It is not known whether this material was ever added to the council’s assets register.

Tough decision: Tory Mayor Jason Perry

Theatrical equipment worth many more tens of thousands of pounds, such as backstage drapes in the Ashcroft Theatre and Talawa Studio, along with front of house curtains and stage weights, were also purchased – all replacing similar kit that existed in the Halls but which somehow “went missing” during the closedown. Also purchased in this manner were theatre carpets and seats.

The deal between BHLive and Croydon Council to run the Fairfield Halls was negotiated by Peter Gunn, the south coast-based social enterprise’s chief executive at the time. BHLive were the only bidders to run the refurbed venue who said that they would not require an annual subsidy from the council. Eager to save themselves £1million a year, the council accepted the offer despite BHLive’s lack of experience in running multi-venue arts centres.

Gunn then retired from BHLive before the Fairfield re-opening, and before the expansive new programming could bed-in.

The management based in Bournemouth after Gunn left were struggling with their leisure centre business, and integrating a south London arts venue into their portfolio was either beyond them or something they weren’t prepared to do.

Sources in Croydon say that they were told in early 2020 that, “The new chief executive [Symons] and finance director were very clear that they didn’t want Fairfield in their portfolio.

“They might not be saying exactly that now, but that’s just a negotiating position. They might be holding out for some kind of severance payment. That would be more than they deserve.”

Discussions between new Mayor Perry and Croydon’s influential arts lobby over the next few weeks could be critical to the future of the Fairfield Halls, and the success, or otherwise, of the 2023 Borough of Culture.

Read more: £67m arts centre – with no art gallery and few performances
Read more: The grand scandal at the centre of Fairfield’s absurd saga
Read more: Conflicts of interest, incomplete contracts, unlawful payments
Read more: £30m Fairfield Halls project never went to competitive tender

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
This entry was posted in Art, Ashcroft Theatre, BH Live, Borough of Culture 2023, Brick by Brick, Business, Croydon Council, Fairfield Halls, Jo Negrini, Mayor Jason Perry, Mayor of London, Neil Chandler, Paula Murray, Sadiq Khan, The Wreck, Theatre, Tony Newman, Val Shawcross and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Mayor has weeks to save Fairfield Halls and Borough of Culture

  1. David Simons says:

    More great reporting IC, keep the pressure on.

    The greatest gift Mayor Perry could give to the Croydon arts community is the the return of Fairfield to local management, that would set the tone for Borough of Culture and demonstrate a new era of Croydon cultural politics.

    Indeed it will cost a little in the short term but a plan to return volunteers to the halls, to welcome back local users and to kickstart the night-time economy is surely in the long-term interests of the borough.

  2. Susan Stein says:

    WHY is BHLive running Croydon’s most important cultural asset?

    This company couldn’t organise a children’s tea party in a Butlin’s Holiday camp (or is this the thing they are really good at?)

    Can somebody PLEASE get these fuckers out of Fairfield Halls.

  3. The lack of ambition isn’t confined to BH Live.

    Andrew Pelling and Richard Howard, candidates in the recent Mayoral election, promised that if successful they’d send in forensic accountants to find out where our money went. Perry said nothing. What’s he going to do about it now that he’s the Mayor?

    Then there’s the theft of Peter Youngman’s artwork. Who nicked it? Did anyone at Croydon Council report its disappearance? Are Croydon police investigating it?

    The trees and shrubs that used to grace the frontage with Park Lane for years were cut down, replaced by tarmac , a car park and temporary plastic planters. Who ordered that and why? Is the Cabinet Member for Communities and Culture, Andy Stranack, going to fix this and start restoring a sense of pride in our Fairfield Halls?

    That BH Live should be sacked and fast is beyond question. A glance at their financial records shows they are going down the pan by their own efforts. However, somebody in Bernard Weatherill House should be poring over the contract to find out how they can be dumped without us having to pay them off.

  4. Timothy Horgan says:

    In my opinion Fairfield Hall was ok as it was and didn’t need refurbishing, certainly not to the amount that it was.

    • The Fairfield Halls had been in desperate need of refurbishment for a decade or more – 60-year-old seats in the two main auditoriums were promised to be replaced by the Tories in 2013 and modernisation of the back-of-house equipment (lifts and stage access) areas to make it a venue fit for the 21st Century.

      What we got was little more than a lick of paint for nearly £70million.

      What was needed was not delivered, or finished. What was paid was a scandal, and is now subject to a possible fraud investigation.

      But as well as being utterly wrong, you also miss the point: the Halls need to be managed, its artistic programme curated. And the matter at hand here is whether BHLive are up to that task.

  5. Haydn White says:

    Sorry but isn’t the phrase Croydon and culture some sort of oxy moron or are we talking criminal culture , I see police swarming around central Croydon today, anybody remember the days when Croydon was an up and coming place full of promise .

  6. Hazel swain says:

    dont bother ,, the refurbishment did nothing to improve the place . I visited shortly after its re launch.. the place was an unfinished tip .. still with old seats and carpet and no locks on the toilet doors .

  7. Nev Channing says:

    This is the most appalling load of non-news I have ever come across. Who ARE all these mysterious ‘sources’?! The whole thing reads like some sort of embittered, hateful, ex-employee’s spleen-venting!!

    I’ve read umpteen similar pieces by Inside Croydon and can’t help but wonder whether Croydon’s arts centre might be better served by receiving support and positive promotion from its local journalists rather than this frankly nasty, unproductive, salacious twaddle.

    • We report what is happening in this borough.

      We are not some bunch of “cheerleaders” here to “provide positive promotion” just to make you feel a little more comfortable.

      It’s what’s called journalism: publishing what those in power don’t want published. As someone once said, all the rest is just advertising…

      Thus we were the first to report that BHLive had been handed the management contract, simply on the basis that they were cheaper than any other bidders.
      We were first to report the Fairfield Halls refurbishment was going over time and over budget.
      We were the first to report that the refurb contract was handed to Brick by Brick without any competitive tendering.
      We were first to report on how the refurb had not been done to the specification requirements and was left unfinished.
      We were first to report the postponement of a Royal Gala re-opening concert becuase of on-going problems with the refit.
      We were the first to report on the departure of Neil Chandler as the Halls’ artistic director, less than six months after the re-opening.
      We were first to report how BHLive were making staff redundant, after accepting millions in government and Arts Council grants and furlough cash, without any plans for immediate re-opening.
      We were the first to report the serious conflicts of interest of council exec directors on the boards of the Fairfield Halls and Brick by Brick.

      And now there’s a fraud investigation into how nearly £70million of public money was spent on what appears to be little more than a lick of paint.

      Or what you would describe as “nasty, unproductive, salacious twaddle”. Or “non-news”.

      Our sources? Reliable individuals with access to important information denied the general public. We protect our sources, in a borough where whistle-blowers are punished and persecuted by those in power, who prefer cover-ups. As, it seems, do you.

    • David Simons says:

      The whole reply Mr Channing reads like an employee of BH Live as not one person in Croydon would have the gall to write such utter tripe. Until you understand the truthful facts of the matter and can reply point by point to the statements made in the main article please do not bother to try to defend the indefensible.

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