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18 July 2017
One year on since Labour closed Fairfield Halls - what is actually going on in there?

A year has passed since the Fairfield Halls closed its doors to make way for an extensive refurbishment, the option of a partial closure having been rejected by our Labour-led Council. The Fairfield’s staff were laid off and we must wait until the planned re-opening in November 2018 before we can again see live performances at Croydon’s flagship venue.

Since the closure, work has been going on behind the hoardings although solid information on how things are progressing has been sparse. What we can say is that a new operator has been appointed in the shape of Bournemouth-based BH Live. Although BH Live already run the Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre, most of the venues that the company manages are sports and leisure centres. The Fairfield will be the biggest venue that the company has managed by some margin.

Behind the hoardings work has been going on to prepare for the main refurbishment. Detailed surveys, asbestos removal and the stripping of fixtures and fittings have been preparing the ground. This work is largely complete and Croydon Council’s wholly owned development company, Brick by Brick (Croydon), has appointed Vinci Construction UK to take the venue through the next phase of work. Vinci Construction UK were planned to arrive on site in May and will remain until the venue reopens.

The Fairfield Halls are vital for the future success of our town. Other developments such as the Westfield/Hammerson shopping centre will bring people in during the day, but a thriving night economy will keep our streets lively and safe as well as bringing jobs and other economic benefits. Without that we risk becoming a combination of a shopping centre during the day and a dormitory for people working in Central London, with deserted streets in between times.

What’s more, we need some tangible success quickly. There will inevitably be disruption during the years of construction. The Fairfield is the early flagship project to show the world and ourselves that we are on the way up.

How things are going is not entirely clear. Our council, with an eye on the elections in May 2018 is very cagey. Opening in time for the panto season in November 2018 continues to be their position in public. However, there are signs all may not be well.

The Labour council, who came into office promising to be an “accountable, open and transparent council” has been precisely the opposite, especially

when it comes to the Fairfield Halls project. However, the November 2016 Cabinet meeting let slip some critical milestones. Asbestos removal, almost certainly a critical path item, was shown for completion by March 2017.

In answer to a question at the April council meeting Councillor Tim Godfrey stated that the asbestos removal would now not be finished till June. The project had slipped more than two months in the space of five. That cannot be good, although Brick by Brick confirmed on June 22nd of this year that the asbestos strip-out had been completed. We can take some comfort that things don’t appear to have got any worse just yet.

The detailed timings for the next phase of the work have not yet been made public. The only one we have is ‘re-opening’ in November 2018. Re-opening might mean the whole building is handed over to the operator with every part of it fully functioning, or it might mean just one of the venues opening with the rest not handed over for months.

When we do hear something it may well be another case of council transparency going awol. Brick by Brick is not subject to Freedom of Information requests and there is little public scrutiny. We will be told what the council chooses to tell us, which likely won’t be much given the council elections in May 2018.

Another Fairfield alarm bell rang recently. The operator appointed in April is a key customer of the project whose job is to make the completed Fairfield facility work safely and profitably. Yet the job of General Manager is only just being advertised. Having a General Manager appointed while there is still time to influence the design is not critical to success, but it surely helps, especially so when the operator has not run a venue of this magnitude before.

So how is the project going? Are the council and Brick by Brick managing it well? Is the project falling behind? What about costs? Will the Fairfield Halls open in its entirety in November 2018? Under this council’s definition of transparency I don’t think they will be wanting to let us know any time soon but your Croydon Conservative councillors are on the case. It wouldn’t hurt if you too lobbied Labour councillors at every opportunity, and don’t be fobbed off by vagueness and assurances; ask for evidence. Good luck with that.

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