Council chief defends Civic halls project after 'incompetence' claim

The leader of Wolverhampton Council today pledged the Civic halls’ refurbishment will not cost residents “a penny” – and hopes it will open by the end of the year.

An artist's impression of what the interior of the Civic Hall will look like.
An artist's impression of what the interior of the Civic Hall will look like.

Councillor Ian Brookfield said the long-delayed project – which has ballooned in cost by another £5million – would be funded through revenue from AEG Presents, which will take over the running of the venue once it completes the revamp.

And although he admitted the costly revamp had been “disappointing”, he said it would provide the city with a “tremendous boost” once it opens.

The refurb has taken more than seven years and is set to cost £48m, almost five times its original budget.

Conservatives in the city have slammed the controlling Labour group over the project, which has been hit by a series of delays and issues over cost since it closed in 2015.

Councillor Brookfield told the Express & Star three major issues had impacted the project.

The first was the collapse of the Shaylor Group in 2019, which delayed the project a full year as chiefs sought to find another company to carry out the revamp.

Then the pandemic saw restrictions meaning only 80 people were allowed inside the venue safely to conduct the major work and they were working “start-stop” during the virus.

And the third issue, he said, was that workers found “part of our heritage” – a 14th century cobbled road – beneath the main building which led to further delays with archaeologists coming in.

Leader of Wolverhampton Council Ian Brookfield

Mr Brookfield said: “I’m disappointed and could it have been done earlier? Yes, if there was clear headwinds. The i9 and i54 developments were all delivered on time, on budget, and it’s what we can do with a fair wind but we’ve had these three major things, hence the delay.

“But it’s getting fitted out by AEG and they are the end users. They are now coming in and they’ll be going ‘right, we want our signs over here and we don’t want that here’ and it’ll take a couple of months due to the size of the building for them to personalise it. They’ve got to use it and live with it for the next 25 years and in the next couple of months people will start seeing job adverts appearing.

“They will see (listings on) major ticket sites, so people will see that and it will be a real, tangible thing. And I hope most of the city, like me, will warmly welcome back the Civic Halls. It will be a tremendous boost to the city, the night-time economy, and we’re all looking forward to a brilliant future with AEG.”

The leader said the hope was to get the refurbishment completed, and the venue opened, by the end of the year. He said this could mean “December 28 or something similar”, but emphasised he hoped the venue opened shortly.

He added: "They are doing their level best to get an opening this year, now that could be December 28 and it depends how long it takes to personalise it and then open it up. I would really hope they can achieve that, but even if it’s a week later I’m not going to have a go about it – the end is in sight.

“It has not and will not cost any residents in the city a penny of their council tax to pay for it. It’s paid from the revenue we get off AEG moving forward and no matter what the total is, that’s the reality. So people are getting the fantastic Civic halls back at no cost for themselves personally, it’s quite a good deal.”

Councillor Brookfield has dismissed criticism from the opposition Conservative group, saying they had not come up with an alternative solution and adding: “I don’t like moaners”.

But Councillor Wendy Thompson, leader of the Tories, said of the project: “It’s taken almost eight years, it’s gone from £10 million to now £48 million and the whole thing has helped to blight the city.

“It’s blighted the city centre, it’s been very detrimental and harmful to staff in shops and officers and has put people off coming into Wolverhampton. There should have been a thriving night-time economy, and even now I’ve been checking listings for touring shows and I couldn’t find any mention of Wolverhampton except for the Grand Theatre.

“Where are the shows going to come from to put on there? All of the main touring shows have got their dates already booked up. We have waited to see it finished and they have had an investigative report, a 'lessons learned' report which they have learned nothing from. Could they have done any worse? I don’t think they could have.

"Incompetent? Completely.”

Work has been taking place inside the Civic Hall

Tory Councillor Ellis Turrell said the latest setback would be examined by the scrutiny board he chairs.

"People across the city have had enough of the council’s total mismanagement of the Civic halls refurbishment," he said.

“To call this entire project shambolic would be an understatement. From the very beginning, it was clear that the Labour-run council were way out of their depth.

"There are serious questions for Wolverhampton Council to answer, and that is why we will be scrutinising this latest setback at scrutiny board."

Steve Homer, chief executive of AEG Presents, said last year he hoped the venue would be open at the start of September this year – with events starting up then before the delays.

Since the venue closed for improvements in December 2015, the project has been hit by a series of major setbacks, including the discovery of asbestos inside the building and the original contractor going bust.

The cost was originally supposed to be around £10 million and the venue was due to be reopened in November 2016.

However, work ground to a halt after structural problems with the venue were found to be far worse than first thought.

In 2018 an independent report said the council's management of the project was "inadequate", prompting Tory councillors to accuse the council of "appalling neglect".

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