Maybe a two year closure is best for the Fairfield Halls

By - Thursday 5th May, 2016

Robert Ward puts on his devil’s advocate hat and rides into the Fairfield debate

In project management there are always choices. Any project manager worthy of the name starts with an open mind looking at a range of options before deciding which to take forward. The range should push the boundaries of the possible; that way you learn most. Sometimes you find that one of those boundary-pushing, almost unthinkable options is the best one to take forward. At worst you learn something that helps your middle-of-the-road choice.

Infrastructure projects that disrupt the lives of the public are one of the tougher challenges. Just looking at the boundary-pushing options invites newspaper headlines to scare people and sell newspapers. So why not keep it confidential while you figure things out? Well, then you risk some kind soul leaking something. The headlines then become ‘Secret plan to…’. You can’t win. Once that’s sorted, no matter which way you go, there will be disruption.

Take the Fairfield Halls refurbishment. A sensible project manager would look at options to completely rebuild it, perhaps somewhere else. That doesn’t mean that that’s the intention, indeed the opposite. Asking yourself what that means enables you to justify refurbishment. Better still, having thought it through, you have the argument ready should the question be raised. That’s your job: to understand the options and make the right choices.

In the absence of the council stepping up, here’s my guess at what the case for a total shut-down looks like

We in Croydon have a ringside seat at a couple of good examples. Not only the Fairfield, but also the upgrades at London Bridge. Both projects faced the choice of a total or phased shutdown.

For London Bridge, the phased shut-down was chosen. It is more expensive, takes longer and the safety issues are more challenging to manage. On the flipside, a total shutdown would hugely disrupt rail travellers for a shorter time, but would take disruption beyond the manageable pain threshold. That’s why they chose the phased approach.

For the Fairfield, the council is pursuing a total shutdown. In the absence of the council stepping up, here’s my guess at what the case for a total shut-down looks like. I am of course hampered by the council’s secrecy, something I have at least as big a problem with as with their chosen option.

On operating model, starting with a clean sheet of paper enables you to make strategic choices for the future

So here goes. Take safety first. Given a free choice, a project manager will always choose to have complete control of the whole of the site for the whole of the time. Keeping the public well away and maintaining the same boundary for the duration of the project is easiest to manage.

On cost, a total closure is cheaper. No need to fiddle about with staging work, temporary workarounds or awkward lifts because the crane interferes with areas still in use by the public.

On operating model, starting with a clean sheet of paper enables you to make strategic choices on how the future Fairfield will be operated, unconstrained by the current model. Keeping the current staff in place, good though they may be, limits your options.

We should next move to a sensible discussion on how much these alternatives cost

Of course there are trade-offs. Most obviously, redundancies and loss of expertise from laying off the current staff. Additionally, the risk of losing the audience, extending the post-refurbishment recovery period, made worse if the shut-down overruns.

Whether by now you are nodding enthusiastically – or perhaps more likely, spitting with fury – we should next move to a sensible discussion on how much these alternatives cost and what the range of uncertainties are, on costs, but also revenues and timing. This is where we feel the lack of information from the council, who are playing the ‘knowledge is power’ card. We just don’t know.

Our lack of knowledge further hampers us when we try to fit into the wider context. A significant constraint, perhaps the biggest, is the manpower to do the work. The total shutdown, probably scheduled to a tight timeframe, means that we must have the skilled manpower when we need it, or we will be delayed. Do not underestimate how hard this is in the current environment.

Spending more on the Fairfield means less to spend elsewhere

There may be manpower synergies (and cost reduction opportunities) with work on the rest of the College Green site, or even across Croydon. This is more difficult with the total shutdown.

And then there are the choices on other aspects of the College Green development. The council wants to break even across the whole development, washing its face in the jargon.

Spending more on the Fairfield means less to spend elsewhere, or more money has to be generated from the housing. Maximum revenue from the housing means minimal social housing, which is the vast bulk of the so-called ‘affordable’ homes. The council has chosen to demand a high proportion of the homes on the site be social housing, but that reduces the revenue from housing sales.

More social housing is a benefit to the council beyond pure capital cost, but it comes at a price

The council needs more social housing, currently incurring costs due to placing people in more expensive private rented accommodation. More social housing is a benefit to the council beyond pure capital cost, but it comes at a price, significantly reducing the revenue from house sales.

And then there’s the politics. But there, dear reader, is where the humble project manager steps aside.

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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  • Andy Hylton

    Thank you for joining the debate Bob and it is good to hear someone offering up a professional opinion. Unfortunately this view conflicts with the concerns and advice all the professionals we have spoken with including most notably the Theatres Trust, an advisory body that understands not only the building and planning of theatres but also the effects that a full closure will have on the community well-being and future viability of the venue.

    Croydon Council did not look at all options properly or take into account any detrimental effects on the community from a full closure. The additional costs of re-opening Fairfield from a cold-start will be in excess of the suggested £4.3m costs of phasing the development. The now mythical ‘Mott MacDonald Report’ showed this, but the council chose to ignore it or else just failed to share it with with us. Instead they chose to cherry-pick only the negatives about the phasing and adding a number which varies between £4.3m-£50m, depending on which Cabinet member you trust the most.

    If we all only view the Fairfield Halls as cold steel and concrete then boshing it up cheap and cheerful as you can, would maximize the profits. The thing about an arts venue is that we have the time to make things better. There is no rush for the post,
    unless you are aiming to use it as a political tactic to gain votes during an upcoming election in 2020.

    Let’s take it easy, allow the venue to grow stronger, building new audiences and retaining old ones. Keeping the link to the people and schools and keeping the operator as a charitable one, not selling it off to a corporate. This is best for Fairfield.

    Just as long as people have constant access and Fairfield is providing an amenity for the community we can all put up with a little inconvenience. The only people who will be inconvenienced are those who support and visit Fairfield, and not the ones who never go and wish it closed. They will stay away regardless and be happy for the increase in value of their property as Croydon houses prices rise and homelessness rises with it.

    Like libraries, access to arts and culture should be seen as a necessity alongside waste disposal, hospitals or schools. Of course some will now throw their arms up and say how
    can you possibly compare a theatre or gallery to a hospital? Let us look at some research. The following quotes and research comes straight from the Arts Council England website:

    “The value of arts and culture to people and society outlines the existing evidence on the impact of arts and culture on our economy, health and wellbeing, society and education.”

    “Those who had attended a cultural place or event in the previous 12 months were almost 60 per cent more likely to report good health compared to those who had not, and theatre-goers were almost 25 per cent more likely to report good health. “

    “High-school students who engage in the arts at school are twice as likely to volunteer than those who don’t engage in the arts and are 20 per cent more likely to vote as young adults.”

    “There is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger.”

    “Research has evidenced that a higher frequency of engagement with arts and culture is generally associated with a higher level of subjective wellbeing.”

    “Engagement in structured arts and culture improves the
    cognitive abilities of children and young people.“

    “A number of studies have reported findings of applied arts and cultural interventions and measured their positive impact on specific health conditions which include dementia, depression and Parkinson’s disease.”

    “The use of art, when delivered effectively, has the power to facilitate social interaction as well as enabling those in receipt of social care to pursue creative interests. The review highlights the benefits of dance for reducing loneliness and alleviating
    depression and anxiety among people in social care environments. “

    Fairfield is not a railway station or a shopping centre. Fairfield isn’t just a building and it isn’t just a theatre. It is a cultural ‘home’ to many community groups and a centre of creative expression, community values and human interaction with the arts. The Council’s plans do not consider the people of Croydon, whether local taxpayers, young people or the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Many Croydon residents need these facilities on a daily basis, not just an occasional show at Christmas time.

    It has even come to our attention that some elected councilors are reverse-elitist and oppose the idea of live orchestral concerts at Fairfield Halls altogether. They think it is elitist, preferring the bar to the concert hall, their knowledge of classical composers extends as far as ‘Brahms and Liszt’.

    Well, I’m a jazz -man myself, but I have seen the affect classical music has on my own children and the schools that use the Halls.

    It excites and inspires children to be involved in live orchestral performances and this is amplified by the bright acoustics of the Concert Hall. Keeping Fairfield as Croydon’s centre of musical excellence, as supported by Sir Simon Rattle and Nigel Kennedy, should be at the heart of the regeneration of Fairfield. This must be considered a priority when choosing a future operator or else we could risk losing that this in Croydon forever. Truly a “crime against the community.”

    I am yet to hear anyone defend the closure without quoting cost as the primary reason. If this is truly the root problem with the phased approach then allow a charitable operator the opportunity to fund raise for a phased refurbishment and support this with a temporary theatre-tent venue in the centre of town.

    What is best for Fairfield Halls is what is best for the people of Croydon, and that is to keep it open through all works. Taking this away for two years, will have a negative effect on the happiness, well-being and health of Croydon residents.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Andy. I am on your side but in the absence of the Council coming up with a case I thought it worth putting something together.

      Even greater concern than which way it goes is that I see no evidence that the council makes well thought out decisions on anything. This damages the Fairfield but also every other decision that the council makes.

      I would also be very interested to see the brief that has been given to whoever has been tasked with defining options for the operating model. What the constraints are and how we will judge which is the best should be defined up front. I fear we will get another “here’s the answer, like it or lump it” proposal followed by hiding any evidence to the contrary.

      • Helen Hampton

        I think it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Council really doesn’t have any idea what it’s doing, but have been sold a ‘grand plan’ that all sounds very lovely, and rather like the Emperor’s new clothes, are now floundering around trying to make the right noises while blindly making decisions they are not equipped to make.

        Up until September, all the conversations about refurbishment involved a phased approach. The fact that they will neither listen to reason nor engage with us tells us that phasing has, since then, never been a consideration, regardless of what the Mott MacDonald report says (pretty much that the costs of doing the works phased or closed are the same, which is why no-one is allowed to see it). This isn’t about culture, it’s about money and glory. What happened in September to change the Council’s thinking? Or who?. So now,they want to shut Fairfield down so they can get rid of Fairfield Ltd and all the staff, and bring in a commercial operator. Worse still, Negrini has indicated that they intend to bring in several and carve the venue up piecemeal, and frankly I fear these deals are already almost done. This is utter madness on many levels. The Fairfield Halls are unique in their makeup, and that is one of their greatest assets. Stripping them out, chopping them into independent bits and letting them be taken over by operators who’s only concern is profit is a travesty of the worst kind. Furthermore, it seems very likely that the College will also have a piece. Note on the plans where it says ‘possible teaching rooms’ Clearly, one can only speculate as to the brokering of the deal which will see the College being demolished (even though they OWN the freehold and have just had a multi million pound new library wing built -£35m of public money was it?) and agreeing to move to a much smaller site rammed up to the back of Fairfield. Why would they do that? What could possibly be in it for them unless the sweetener was Fairfield itself? I think the council have a belief that an operator like Live Nation is what’s needed – hence their talk of ‘new audiences’. What they really mean is no more classical music, ever, as they desperately go in search of the youth audience that they believe will make them all look hip. They are star struck. They’ve decided they want Adele to play at Fairfield and this is the dream they are pursuing come hell or high water and to heck with the rest of us.

        I believe firmly that an arts trust is still by far the best solution for the long term future of the venue and the community, and to safeguard ALL of Croydon’s cultural needs. This trust could easily run Fairfield commercially after refurbishment, but the council want big names and quick glory. The heritage of the hall, the legacy of classical music and it’s famous acoustics mean nothing. They probably had to google Sir Simon Rattle to find out who he is. Jo Negrini said in the scrutiny meeting that it was ‘just a building’. This is the level of ignorance and disregard with which we are dealing. This is our architectural and cultural heritage that is being vandalised here. However shiny the exterior gloss will be, the heart and soul will be gone forever. The Council are making very sure of that.

        • Robert Ward

          Thank you Helen.

          I share your concern on the future operating model. In particular I would like to see the brief that has been given to the person whose job it is to develop options. A forlorn hope I’m afraid.