Empty chairs and serious concerns at the Save Our Fairfield Halls meeting

By - Wednesday 13th April, 2016

More than 150 people recently turned out to discuss the controversial refurbishment plans for the Fairfield Halls. Robert Ward attended, and wishes that Croydon Council had been there too

Fairfield Halls.
Photo by John Gass, used with permission.

A packed Arnhem Gallery heard the latest from the Save Our Fairfield Halls campaign in its battle to change Croydon Council’s plan to close the Fairfield completely for two years for major refurbishment. The campaign does not reject the need for refurbishment, but favours a phased closure.

Leader of Croydon Council Tony Newman, cabinet member for culture, leisure and sport Timothy Godfrey, and Jo Negrini, ‘Executive Director of Place’, were all invited well in advance, but failed to turn up. Polite letters declining the invitation were received from Jo Negrini and Tony Newman. Councillor Godfrey failed to respond so a chair was available for him. It remained unfilled.

With no council representative present, this was inevitably a one-sided discussion, but the speakers did their best to present both sides of the argument. The good news is that the Fairfield will be refurbished. Good too that the famed acoustics of the main hall should be retained, as will the broad layout of the halls.

Venues of similar size such as the Southbank Centre are too far and too expensive. Nearby venues like the Stanley Halls are too small

On the other hand, major shortcomings were identified in the practicalities of operating the refurbished facility. Extra pillars obstructing operations, lack of storage space, reduced parking and difficulties with manoeuvring large vehicles were highlighted.

We heard impassioned speeches on the value of the Fairfield to Croydon’s people. Schoolchildren and parents have attended events like the annual schools dance event for many years. For many this was their first visit to a theatre. Venues of similar size such as the Southbank Centre are too far and too expensive. Nearby venues like the Stanley Halls are too small.

An experienced local structural engineer, Satish Desai, commented on the project plans, specifically the handling of asbestos, for which there are tried and tested regulations. Employing experienced certified contractors means that this hot-button issue can be safely and responsibly managed.

Portraying those present as ‘a bunch of Tories’ would be inappropriate as well as inaccurate

Mr Desai (who set out his views in detail in a Citizen article earlier this week) also pointed to organisational shortcomings – that no developer is on board, planning permission has yet to be secured, the operating model is undecided, and detailed design is yet to be done. The Theatres Trust, an independent body that has to be consulted on theatre-related planning issues, expressed its concern that an operator has yet to be appointed. These all point to a high risk of schedule over-run.

Sean Creighton pointed out that the rapidly changing nature of Croydon’s population means that complete closure risks losing the collective memory of the Fairfield. Recovering the audience and community connection could be a long road. Sean also gave his thoughts on how politicians can be influenced. Contributions from the floor offered further advice on how people might be mobilised and the council’s mind changed.

Portraying those present as ‘a bunch of Tories’, as some have already attempted to do, would be inappropriate as well as inaccurate. I recognised a couple of Conservative councillors in the audience and one spoke from the floor. I’m a Conservative Party member myself but I recognised no others. Several speakers from the floor explicitly stated that they were not routine Tory voters.

The crucial report on the project is being kept secret

It is certainly the case that it is convenient for some to characterise it as such. That makes it easier for the Croydon Labour leadership to manage the issue. It would however be a poor reflection on them, as they are elected to represent the interests of Croydon, not just their own political ‘tribe’.

Most disturbing for me is the opacity of the process. The crucial report on the project is being kept secret, even from opposition councillors whose job it is to scrutinise the decision. Digging through what I can find on the council website makes me little the wiser on the alternative options and costings. A phased approach is likely to be more expensive, but without access to costings it is impossible to say how much more, and how the gap might be closed.

Striking the right balance is never easy but my impression is of a design where the Fairfield Halls comes third to housing and Croydon College. The absence of detailed design and no developer on board make completing on schedule difficult. Lack of an experienced operator and squeezing of the space available for the Fairfield risk setting the future operation up to fail.

To change the perception of Croydon we need a flagship project

This rather depressing conclusion is countered by the obvious passion of those campaigning to reverse the council’s decision. You can listen to an audio recording of the meeting here. Judge for yourself.

Whether it is realistic to hope for a reversal of the council’s decision is moot. The council holds all the cards, but if there is one issue which I would urge Croydon’s residents to look at and get behind it is this one.

Croydon has a bright future if the huge investment in the Fairfield Halls and elsewhere over the next few years is done right. To change the perception of Croydon we need a flagship project. A world-class venue at the Fairfield is the obvious candidate, no doubt about that. But the current plan risks a second-class outcome delivered late, perhaps very late.

Get this wrong and we risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. We and generations to come will pay the price. The council should think very carefully before it pushes through its current plan.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Sean Creighton

    Nice one Robert. There were more than 150 because that’s the number of chairs put out plus 50 more added to seat latecomers. For other aspects of the meeting see by blog postings at https://seancreighton1947.wordpress.com/author/seancreighton1947/

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Sean.

      I recommend Sean’s blog to others for this and other matters. Read it. You may not always agree with Sean but you will learn something.

  • Peter Staveley

    I too was present that evening.

    For me the most telling point was made by Sean Creighton during is piece at the start of the evening and explained in his blog of the evening. The problem is in the system used by Croydon Council, i.e. The Cabinet System; it gives too much power to the Majority Group and particularly The Leader. It allows him to push through decisions without requiring any effective consultation, so rendering the Opposition impotent.

    It results in top-down solutions rather than allowing bottom-up proposes to appear.

    Due to the secrecy of the report, and the need (also imposed by the Council) to make a decision quickly, the protesters have not even been given the opportunity to find the alleged additional £4.8 million which would be required to complete the refurbishment in a phased manner. Obviously, they have not been given the opportunity to properly scrutinise the costings to confirm that the net result of a phased closure would indeed by an additional £4.8 million.

    If the system of undertaking the refurbishment in one phase is so good then why has the Leader not been meeting the residents and stakeholders to fully demonstrate that their proposal is the best for the venue? What have they got to hide? It would not only be good PR for the Labour Group but would show that they really are open and transparent.

    Ultimately Councillors are answerable to the electorate and we, the people of Croydon, must fully hold those Elected Councillors to account.

    By the way, this is a cross-Party issue. If you remember there was similar secrecy by the Conservative administrative over the:

    • Withdrawal of funding for the Warehouse Theatre
    • Closure of the David Lean Cinema
    • Selling the Riesco Collection
    • Ending webcasts of Council meetings (including banning of the use of any recording equipment and photos in the Council Chamber), itself leading to further secrecy of what the Council was doing.

    So, in my opinion the issue about the Fairfield Halls is far wider than just how the refurbishment should be done.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Peter. I haven’t put much thought into whether the root cause of all this secrecy can be laid at the door of Cabinet style of government.

      I do find the secrecy frustrating and had assumed it was a result of lack of respect for the electorate, a ‘not in front of the children’ attitude. My assumption was that the debate happened during the section of the meeting that is not open to the public. This is why I was surprised when the Conservative Councillor said that the opposition did not have the information either.

      Something needs to change if this is a general problem. What that change might be I would need to think more about.

  • Helen Hampton

    Well said Robert, especially love your last 2 paragraphs which sum up the situation very well.