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20 October 2015
Are the lights about to go out in Fairfield Halls? Redevelopment scheme risks its permanent closure

Croydon Labour has recently announced its grand plan to refurbish Fairfield Halls. But rather than making adequate funding provision out of the council’s cabinet budget (as the previous Conservative administration had committed to do), it instead is relying on the profit from building flats around it to pay for the refurbishment.

And if you think you’ve heard that one before, that’s because you have. Back in the early 2000s the then Labour council had an almost identical scheme to refurbish Fairfield Halls by building several large blocks of flats behind it. Whilst arguably viable when the scheme was agreed by cabinet, by the time it came to deliver the market had moved against them and the viability had disappeared so the proposed developer withdrew. A similar fate befell the much-hyped Arrowcroft Arena scheme which went on to blight the site next to East Croydon for years after it also collapsed.

Labour is taking a hugely risky speculative punt on the property market to fund the refurbishment, but it gets worse. They have effectively closed Fairfield Halls from next summer by announcing that in order to reduce the refurbishment cost they intend to close it for 2½ years from next autumn. As of now, no new act or production will now book to appear at Fairfield. So what happens if the market now moves against the viability? We end up with nothing, just like what happened to their 2005 scheme for Fairfield Halls and the 2005 Arrowcroft Arena. But actually it's worse, because those two collapsed schemes just left us with an ageing but viable asset, but this one would leave us with a closed and non-viable Fairfield.

And even if they get lucky and it all works out, the staff will have been laid off and moved on, the Corps of Volunteers will have disbanded and the new venue will need a hefty subsidy in order to build audiences back up and attract those new acts back. The cost of this is likely to be similar to the increased build cost of redeveloping the Fairfield in phases, so the saving is likely to be nothing but the risk of Labour’s plan is much greater.

Councillor Tim Pollard, Leader of the Opposition, says “Labour is playing roulette with our much-loved Fairfield Halls. It’s betting the house on red and crossing its fingers. But, unlike the last time it took a similar punt, this time the stakes are higher, because it could well result in the permanent closure of the venue. Last time it just didn’t deliver anything: this time it stands to deliver a catastrophe.

“Labour’s record on these developer-funded regeneration projects is atrocious – so far it is ‘played two, lost two’. Let’s hope they don’t make it three out of three.

“What is also clear is that the management of the Fairfield Halls are completely opposed to this scheme. We all want the place refurbished, but the management understand the importance of keeping the doors open throughout and not starting until funding is actually in place.”

Almost as an aside, Labour’s scheme does assist Croydon College in building an all-new college building next to Fairfield Halls and this too would be funded by developing c 1,000 flats on the site of its old building. Again, the concept is to be welcomed (and indeed was worked on by administrations from both parties for a decade or so), but carries similar risks around the viability. However, because the college is never required to close and its new building would be completed before the old one is knocked down, at least the risk for it is just that it never happens.

We call upon the leader of the council to rethink this. We will support any properly funded scheme which looks to deliver a new Fairfield and a new College. But we can’t support this scheme, which is poorly thought-out and immensely risky.

We have called upon the council to release the report from its construction consultants Mott MacDonald, which it claims supports its assertion that ‘temporary’ closure is best (we suspect it doesn’t really say that…..) and allow publication of its back-of-envelope financial calculations which they say show that the scheme is viable.

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