What’s wrong with the Fairfield closure, by a civil engineer

By - Monday 11th April, 2016

A hasty decision has been made with scant regard for the needs and wishes of Croydonians, says Satish Desai

I have lived in Croydon for thirty-three years. During this time, I have attended various events in Fairfield Halls, including children’s functions with my daughters, various music concerts and cultural programmes of all sorts. During my year as chairman of the South Eastern Group of the Institution of Structural Engineers in 2006, I persuaded the committee to hold technical meetings at the Fairfield, an attractive venue that could be conveniently reached by public transport. My successors have continued this practice until recently and there have been some eight technical meetings every year, attended by more than eighty engineers. For me, the venue is an important part of the town and I cannot contemplate social life in Croydon without it.

So it came as a surprise to me when I heard about the total closure of Fairfield Halls for two years for the purposes of renovation. Then, when I tried to find out more about the council’s plans, I realised that the contractor’s construction programme of the work was not available. However, it must have been too early because, as I understood, some other essential aspects were also missing, such as planning permission, a developer on board, guaranteed funding and a firmed-up and detailed design of the future Halls. Most importantly, there was no information about the future business and operating model, and no budget for re-opening the venue!

All the same, it was announced that the Fairfield would be closed in July 2016 for at least two years, leaving the plans of the organisers of children’s programmes and cultural programmes in disarray.

Structurally, there are three venues within Fairfield. Work should not be undertaken simultaneously in all of them

I have managed construction projects for the Ministry of Defence, costing more than £20 million. It was customary to do the work in phases if the project contained areas with different functions. There are three separate venues within Fairfield Halls (the concert hall, the Peggy Ashcroft Theatre and the Arnhem Gallery, fairly well separated in terms of the basic structure of the building. Hence it seemed logical that, for a project spread over a large area and comprising venues of different characteristics, the work should not be undertaken simultaneously in all venues. In effect, the work should split itself into three phases.

It made perfect sense, therefore, to plan a phased construction and to keep one venue open for use during the progress of work in other parts, so that the venue could remain partially available for children’s functions, cultural events and public meetings. Such separation would also help for retaining the venue’s skilled staff who would otherwise go elsewhere. Works could be undertaken to the key services after isolating services supplies to each venue. In this way, each venue could be sealed off and one or two could operate independently while the others were closed. Previous part closures have been successfully managed and when the venue’s foyer was revamped it led to increased audience numbers.

Too much is being made of the ‘asbestos risk’. This is scare-mongering

Another aspect of the proposal for total closure struck me as mere scare-mongering. Too much was being made of the risk involved in asbestos removal by the supporters of total closure of Fairfield Halls. An asbestos survey can clearly show the locations where it has been used an asbestos removal techniques have been well developed following the introduction of regulations in November 2006. These have since been further refined and a revised set came into force on 6th April 2012.

Reputed firms are required to have full Health and Safety Executive licence before undertaking removal and disposal of asbestos. By ensuring strict compliance with current legislation, the operators can safeguard the environment, site personnel and the general public, using safe removal techniques for secure removal and movement of the waste. The firms have to register the site with the Environment Agency and provide consignment notes for asbestos disposal. Hence, I believe that asbestos removal will present no problems in a phased renovation of Fairfield Halls.

It appears that the decision to totally close down Fairfield Halls has been made in haste, taking a short-termist point of view where politicians have scant respect for the needs and wishes of the people. Croydon is growing, with many new dwellings being constructed rapidly, and it should not lose places like Fairfield Halls. I hope that, just as the venue has enriched the lives of my generation, the Halls continue to be there for the benefit of our children and grandchildren.

Satish Desai

Satish Desai

Satish Desai OBE is a retired civil engineer and project manager with five decades experience in civil and structural engineering. He holds an honorary professorship at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India and has lived in Croydon with his family for over thirty years.

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