'It took less time to build the Channel Tunnel': Civic halls revamp may be pushed back again

The opening of Wolverhampton's Civic halls could be pushed back further due to the "disastrous state" of the ongoing rebuild, a senior councillor has warned.

Work is currently going on inside the Civic halls
Work is currently going on inside the Civic halls

The much-loved venue has been closed since 2015 for a revamp that has quadrupled in cost to around £40 million.

Council chiefs say the rebuild has been held up by a series of unforeseen issues – the most recent of which saw archaeologists brought in after a 14th century cobbled road was unearthed beneath the main building.

The Labour-run authority is now hoping to hand over the halls to promoter AEG Presents in "late April or early May" 2022, ahead of a delayed reopening in the autumn.

Conservative councillor Jonathan Yardley said he was not surprised the council had missed its handover date, which is understood to have already been pushed back five months from November 5 to April 1.

The vice chair of the audit and risk committee said he was left "shocked to the core" by the lack of progress at the venue after a visit this week.

Mr Yardley, who works in the construction industry and specialises in examining jobs that have gone badly wrong, said: "The building is currently in a disastrous state and it is hard to see how they are going to hit the completion date, which has already been pushed back.

"It looks like a job that has been going on for four months ago, rather than for more than five years. There is far too much work to do.

"I have never known such a litany of catastrophic mismanagement by the council on a construction project.

"It took less time to build the Channel Tunnel."

A CGI of how the new Civic halls will look

Councillor Steve Simkins, Wolverhampton Council's deputy leader and city economy boss, said the rebuild was "on track" and making good progress.

He said he understood there were frustrations about the delays, but that a number of stumbling blocks had been faced throughout the project.

These included the building being riddled with asbestos, shortages of steel and wood, and changes to working conditions due to the pandemic, he said.

He said work recently hit a snag due to archaeologists being called in to log a 14th century cobbled road that was found underneath the foundations.

"Whenever we have discovered issues we have addressed them," he said. "We are trying to encourage people to come back into our city and to boost the economy through entertainment and late night leisure.

"It's going to be an incredible, buzzing venue again and I for one can't wait for it to be brought back to life and reopen with thousands of visitors flocking back.

"It would be more constructive if the Conservatives worked with us instead of criticising and trying to score points at every opportunity. We are building people's futures here. What's the alternative, knock it down?"

Mr Simkins added: "We are hoping to hand over to the operator AEG Presents in late April or early May, then it will be for them to set the timescale [for events]."

Willmott Dixon Interiors took over the revamp of the 83-year-old halls on North Street in September 2019 after previous contractor Shaylor collapsed. It was initially closed in December 2015 for what was then expected to be a £10 million overhaul.

The reopened halls will consist of the Wulfrun Hall and the main Civic Hall after the council did not renew its lease on The Slade Rooms, which was used for more intimate gigs.

Earlier this month AEG Presents chief executive Steve Homer told the Express & Star he expected to start a 12-week fit out in April before opening up with a big name local act in September.

The completed building will also feature a number of items from the venue's history – including murals and architectural features – that have been given listed status by English Heritage.

They are currently being stored in an aircraft hangar near Shrewsbury.

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