Amidst the back-slapping of Labour councillors congratulating themselves on the reopening of the Fairfield halls after its major refurbishment, it is worth remembering a few things, writes Cllr Helen Pollard (shadow cabinet member for culture & sport, former director/trustee of Fairfield Croydon).
It’s good to see Fairfield approaching completion and its ceremonial reopening on 16 September, BUT:
- It’s 18 months late.
- It has cost at least £11 million more than it was supposed to (and the leader of the council doesn’t seem to know who authorised that…..)
- It hasn’t had the major changes to stage access which the previous management was adamant was required to enable it to attract the larger acts today’s audiences want to see.
- Its corps of volunteers, which had been so important in running it before closure, has effectively disbanded.
- Its audience, which used to be a very local, very loyal audience, may well have moved on and found other venues to support.
- Car parking has been greatly reduced and there are real fears that this will deter the visitors from the south of the borough and Surrey/Kent who used to be the core of the Fairfield clientele.
Yes, it is now almost open, and there is no doubt that the ambience of the venue should have improved considerably (although we won’t know for sure until we’re allowed in to see it). The old Arnhem Gallery was a mis-step by the ‘60s designers which was never really fit for purpose. Reducing it in height and adding a dance studio above is a good idea which ought to make the space much more usable. Some of the opening up of outdoor space overlooking central Croydon and in College Green ought to be steps forward.
But there remains a worry that the changes are largely cosmetic, and that the new operators will struggle to offer a better mix of entertainment than the old management could. Local community groups, used for decades to booking the facilities at a hefty discount, remain concerned that the new venue will be unaffordable for them. As someone whose two children both performed in the concert hall in non-commercial concerts during their schooldays, I hope these worries turn out to be unfounded (but the early signs are not good).
It is no secret that the former Conservative administration had a very different process in mind for the refurbishment. It is a matter of public record (through decisions made in cabinet in 2012/13) that it had earmarked £33 million for a phased refurbishment, where we would close down each of the Arnhem Gallery, the concert hall and the Ashcroft Theatre for a period of works, one after the other, with no more than one of them closed at any one time. The few short ‘total closures’ needed for wider changes would have been for a few weeks each summer holiday when the venue is normally quite quiet. This would have enabled the venue to continue, to retain its audience and volunteers, and would have been pretty much complete by now. We could also have retained the technical and managerial staff even if the venue were to have been brought into a wider group for strategic management. It would have cost less, not least because it would have carried on generating income.
The plan included major changes the concert hall access, to enable larger ‘roll-on, roll-off’ shows & acts to come to Croydon and be economically viable. That’s been deleted from the project (in other words the cost has gone up AND the spec has gone down).
The previous Conservative administration raised the only funds which the council has spent in cash on the refurbishment - £13 million. The balance of £20 million was always going to be borrowed, but of course under Labour this has gone up to over £30 million, due to the cost overruns.
The new operator, BH Live, was a decent choice as they have an ethos which is fairly similar to the old Fairfield. I hope they will prove able to attract a better mix of entertainment than the independent board could, although it will be a year or two before we can really judge that.
So my message to Labour is ‘yes, you have reopened Fairfield Halls at last: but the job is only partially done. You now have to ensure that that vast sum of public debt which has funded this generates a genuinely excellent 21stcentury venue offering quality commercial and community entertainment.’
I hope they can, but I’m not holding my breath.