Theatre revamp is £12m over budget – and looks the same, say critics

By Tara O’Connor BBC Local Government Reporter

A prestige theatre complex’s refit is £12m over budget – and critics say it looks exactly the same.

But the firm revamping Croydon’s Fairfield Halls says the overspend is as a result of its finding far more asbestos than expected – and much of the expense like new air conditioning, cannot be seen.

A total of £42.6 million has been spent on the refurbishment of Fairfield Halls, but this does not include the underground car park or landscaping, which are still to be completed.

It was originally expected to cost £30 million, a meeting of the Croydon council’s overview and scrutiny committee heard on Monday, February 10.

Cabinet member for culture, leisure and sport, councillor Oliver Lewis said development was carried out by council-owned developer Brick by Brick and will be funded through development of more than 400 flats in the land around the venue.

And he defended the overspend saying that the council needed to spend the money to ensure it was fit for use for the next generations.

Cllr Lewis added: “It is right that we invest in a building that is part of our history and heritage in Croydon.

“We were seeking to restore it to its former glory.”

Head of Brick by Brick, Colm Lacey added: “We have had quite a few unforseens – the biggest being asbestos which had a costly and complicated impact.”

He added that more asbestos than expected was found and in some places and this meant there had to be minor redesigns. Fixings in the Ashcroft Playhouse ceiling needing to be changed, after loads of asbestos was found.

Some parts had to be replaced entirely instead of refurbished, including the cladding on the building, Mr Lacey added.

Since it reopened in December, some in Croydon have criticised the refurbishment claiming that it looks the same as it did before.

But Neil Chandler from BH Live, which now manages the complex, said a lot of the work, like new air conditioning, cannot be seen.

He said the venue will be hosting a photographic exhibition of the behind-the-scenes work of the refurbishment.

“We need to let people know the money we spent because it went in really great places to secure the building for the future generations,” he added.

The 200-space underground car park is expected to open in the spring – and their costs will add still more to the £42.6m spend.

The lack of car parking at the venue is one of the reasons that Neil Chandler said visitor numbers have been below what was expected since it opened.

Visitor numbers since opening to the end of December was 88,000 ticket sales which equates to just 26 per cent occupancy.

This is below the business plan target of 45 per cent occupancy.

More than 90,000 tickets were sold between December 16 and January 31.

Neil said: “That has been down to a series of challenges you would expect when mobilising a building. We don’t have a car park in situ.

“Yes it has been challenging but we are seeing some real positive green shoots that the management team will continue to build on.”

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