This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 10/05/2017.
Running into brick walls around Fairfield Halls
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.