Running into brick walls around Fairfield Halls

By - Wednesday 10th May, 2017

What’s really going on with the refurb?

Image by Croydon Council, used with permission.

Contrary to popular opinion, our politicians do rather a lot. They make difficult decisions and are then responsible for implementing those decisions. Difficult decisions always have pros and cons – that’s why they are difficult.

Once the decision is made, implementation can get glossed over, but that is really where the rubber meets the road. That’s where the money gets spent, and the benefits are generated. On the other hand, it is where failure to deliver gets exposed.

Sometimes the decisions are easy. Take the regeneration of Croydon: there’s little disagreement about what that looks like. We want to be more than a dormitory town populated by commuters swishing (Southern Rail permitting) into Central London, returning only to sleep. We also aspire to be more than a shopping centre, busy by day, but a concrete desert after nightfall.

Fairfield Halls is the flagship project that Croydon needs

A big part of getting that right will be the night-time economy. The regeneration will take years to get there, but delivering some success early to show the world, and ourselves, that we are on the right track is important. Fairfield Halls is the early flagship project that we need.

The refurbishment is being managed by the council and its wholly owned company Brick by Brick. Our future is, to some significant extent, in its hands. If it isn’t delivering, we need to know about it – and quickly.

That there is a council election in May 2018 makes this a political hot potato. Hopes that Fairfield Halls might re-open before the election were swiftly dashed. The opening date was recently confirmed as November 2018, of which more later.

Delay any task on the critical path, and the whole project is held up

So how do we know how things are going? It’s not rocket science. This is a project, so there should be a project plan. A project plan is a sequence of tasks with estimates of start and finish dates and resource requirements for each. Some tasks can be done in parallel and some cannot start until others have finished. Somewhere in there is the ‘critical path’. Delay any task on the critical path and the whole project is held up.

Because of the uncertainties in how long tasks will take and how much they will cost, every project plan has contingencies – extra money for ‘just in case’. There is also some flexibility in timing, a ‘float’ to allow for delays. There is some trade-off between the two; if a task is delayed, then extra money may, for example, pay for overtime working to catch up on time lost.

The council, which 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. Another important task, the strip-out of engineering systems, had a similar expected completion date.

We have slipped behind by more than two months

In answer to a question at the last council meeting, councillor Timothy Godfrey stated that the asbestos strip-out will now not be completed until June, with engineering strip-out work not being completed until October. It was always slightly odd to have the same completion date for two tasks where one is – at least to some extent – likely to be dependent on the other. What is clear is that we have slipped behind more than two months in the space of five. That cannot be good.

To continue to judge the performance of the council and Brick by Brick, we need to understand the critical path items between now and May 2018. The timings for the next phase of the work have not yet been made public. I suspect that this will 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 won’t, I suspect, be much.

Will the Halls reopen in its entirety in November 2018?

The only milestone that we have is the ‘re-opening’ in November 2018. That too needs to be questioned. Re-opening might mean that the whole building is handed over to the operator with every part of it fully functioning, but it might also mean that just one of the venues opening, with the rest not handed over for months.

So are the council and Brick by Brick managing the project well? Is the project falling behind or have we just eaten up some of the float? What about costs? Will Fairfield Halls open in its entirety in November 2018? I don’t know, but I think that I know which way the smart money would bet.

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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  • Ian Marvin

    Are Brick by Brick acting as main contractor and project manager for the Fairfield Halls refurbishment? At the very least I believe Mott MacDonald are retained as consulting engineers and lead designers for the project, plus of course Rick Mather Architects are involved.

    • Robert Ward

      I don’t know the details but from my reading you are right about Mott Macdonald and Rick Mather. Contracting for services is normal practice but it is Brick by Brick whose job it is to manage the totality on behalf of the council and we as the Croydon tax payer. That includes selection of these contractors, making sure they perform and that the whole project with its various elements all fit together.

      If anyone knows better please post here.

  • Dracar Dweig

    Good article. No matter how many companies are involved, opening in November 2018 is pure fantasy.
    The panto in 2019 more likely

    • Robert Ward

      We don’t know really. As I argue in the article, that is my best guess.

  • Peter Ball

    With asbestos you certainly don’t know all the answers untill you actually start doing the work, usually you don’t know all the answers untill you’ve finished. Engineering strip out will be staged, but large parts will not be able to start until they have safely removed all the asbestos. Both jobs on a building like this will be difficult, dirty and unperdicatable. The temptation to be overconfident about the difficulties before you start is also quite large.

    • Robert Ward

      Old buildings always give surprises once you get started and actually see what is behind the plaster and the panels. If you are really concerned you do exploratory work first so you know more in advance of fixing plans and budgets. Contingency and float are the estimates of the pooled uncertainty to the project.

      • Peter Staveley

        Exactly, it is called planning. A lot of this exploratory work could have been done with the building operational (or at least part of the building being operational). Closing the building with no project planning appearing to have taken place is, at best, courageous!