Has pantomime season come early for the Fairfield Halls?

By - Friday 20th November, 2015

As he strenuously avoids any kind of wordplay on ‘he’s behind you’, Robert Ward explains why he thinks there’s nothing particularly funny about the proposed temporary closure of Croydon’s biggest venue

Some you win, some you lose. ‘Transparency’ is one I lost a long time back.

I like to think it’s not pedantry – well, maybe a little – when I plead for words to be used for what they actually mean. I don’t want information to be transparent; I want it to be visible. But let’s finally accept defeat and use the word. Sadly, however it would often be more accurate to use opacity.

Council decisions around the Fairfield Halls are a case in point. Transparency should mean the public understands the decision-making process and sees the supporting information well enough to judge the decision. The Fairfield Halls case shows that Croydon Council still has a long way to go.

Reading the available documentation and listening to the Scrutiny Committee meeting, I am still unsure of what issue was being addressed. Indeed I have added ‘scrutiny’ to my list of misused words – a couple of Labour Councillors seem to think this means ‘wholehearted, uncritical endorsement’.

The council owns the site and the building but does not run Fairfield Halls

I had thought the issue was what option for the Fairfield Halls delivers the best outcome for Croydon. Since there was no simple explanation of the wider context, I was at times baffled. The limited documentation was unhelpful. Some information was excluded on the grounds of commercial sensitivity, but I suspect because it didn’t fit the council’s narrative. So, with a higher risk than usual of being wrong, here is what I think is happening.

The Fairfield sits within the wider context of the College Green development which includes not only the Fairfield, but also Croydon College and adjacent areas. The council owns the site and the building but does not run Fairfield Halls. That is the responsibility of a non-profit organisation, Fairfield (Croydon) Limited, led by Simon Thomsett.

The council has decided to close the Fairfield Halls completely for two years or more, rather than keep it open and do the work in phases. The cost saving is estimated at £4.8 million. How this is worked out is unexplained. There is a list of risks associated with partial closure, but no mention of the risks of a full closure.

Wanting Croydon to be a place noted for culture and creativity is fine, but how will this help that aim?

The capital budget figure of £12 million does not cover the whole cost of the work. This is around £30 million. The council will finance the difference, how is unclear. Someone, presumably a developer, will take on some of the risk and housing built on the site will cover the balance.

The choice before us is whether the Fairfield Halls should be developed using a phased approach or with a complete shutdown. We should ask ourselves which of these options fits best with our values.

The council has published these under the Ambitious for Croydon banner but much is motherhood-and-apple-pie. Wanting Croydon to be a place noted for culture and creativity is fine, but the test is whether your decisions help or hinder achieving that outcome. How will losing the Fairfield completely for an extended period, and Fairfield (Croydon) and its staff forever, with no idea how the whole thing will be run afterwards possibly help things? Although there is much extraneous verbiage, the issue being addressed feels more like ‘finding an outcome that minimises Croydon Council capital spending’.

We should expect meaningful and reliable information on our options. Here things get murky, and information gets sparse. The council has access to all the support of the council administration, which opposition and the public do not.

Restarting will be especially difficult and expensive. Skilled and experienced staff will be made redundant and Croydon loses these cultural activities for a long period

The risks of a phased approach are listed, but the risks of a complete closure are not. This is a fundamental weakness of political decision-making. No option is without risks and downsides; there are always trade-offs. Yet political decision-making almost universally ignores them. The governing side articulates only the positives of their chosen option. Other options are ignored, indeed made as difficult as possible to even examine.

The shortcomings I see for a total shutdown are that there will be significant redundancy costs which I presume will end up wholly or partially covered by the council, presuming Fairfield (Croydon) has no reserves. There will also be a period both before, and probably more significantly after the refurbishment, when there will be no revenue. Restarting will be especially difficult and expensive. Skilled and experienced staff will be made redundant and Croydon loses these cultural activities for a long period, a period which is likely to be longer rather than shorter.

Whether these costs are included somewhere I know not. I strongly suspect not. How robust is the case that the housing will raise enough money to somehow cover the £18 million I also know not. Varying the proportion of social housing should give some latitude should there be a property downturn, but what is the base assumption? This is not mentioned.

So do I think the right decision has been made? Possibly, but more likely not. Am I convinced the project is being well managed? No. As for the process, maybe transparency is the right word after all; the case is so thin you can see right through it.

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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  • http://www.croydontransitiontown.org.uk Andrew Kennedy

    Totally agree with everything you say here. In addition I think the new college building will be too small for a Institute of Technology, an Art College, a University (of Sussex) offshoot and whatever happened to the plans for a Secondary Free School. Furthermore the revised plans show the new College buildings occupying part of the College Green itself thus eating into the designated Local Green Space. The Sussex Innovation Centre is already occupying part of No.1 Croydon. All the existing college buildings to be demolished and replaced with housing, overlooking the new side of the Fairfield Halls. I don’t know who is going to have the better view, the wealthy culture seekers who have travelled down from London to visit the Fairfield Halls and are sipping their cappuchinos looking at the new block of flats opposite, or the residents peering out of their small windows (yes their view is going to be purposefully restricted when looking south, the sunny side) towards the Fairfield. Everything sold off to try and raise money for what may prove to be a white elephant (the Fairfield Halls cannot by any stretch of the imagination equal the South Bank and that gets a huge subsidy anyway) and a paucity of provision for education resulting. Where is the bigger view? Does Croydon want to be a University town buzzing with the creativity of students or would it be better to be a tad more realistic? I’m ambitious for Croydon but not also I think realistic.

    • Stephen Giles

      Yes, many of us are wondering just what Newman is up to from behind his Lego set???

    • Elizabeth Phillips

      Considering Croydon Council has asked all its workforce to apply for redundancy the mind boggles, will any of the plan be implemented or will it end up an ‘empty’ plot so there will be no arts or even a collage