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EXCLUSIVE: Wolverhampton Civic halls reopening delayed to 2021

By Peter Madeley | Wolverhampton | News | Published:

The Civic Hall will reopen in the autumn of 2021 – five years later than originally planned.

Wolverhampton Civic Hall

And it was today revealed the restoration will cost £38.1 million, almost four times its original budget.

The scheme to revamp the 80-year-old Civic and Wulfrun halls has hit a series of snags since it was first announced in 2015, with Wolverhampton Council admitting to failings over “inadequate” project management and poor planning.

Work is finally due to start on the Grade II listed North Street building next month, after bosses revealed it had to be “stripped back to its bare walls” to get rid of asbestos.

Once complete it will have extra bars, increased capacity of around 500 and will host daytime events including weddings, as well as bidding to attract top level bands and awards ceremonies.

It is hoped the Grand Slam of Darts will be one of the first events at the venue when it reopens.

Wolverhampton Civic Hall last hosted the Grand Slam of Darts in 2017

City economy boss Councillor John Reynolds told the Express & Star: “We started with absolutely the best of intentions.

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"If we had known then what we know now we would have approached it differently.

"What we now have is a very realistic scheme that is very detailed, with construction that we know will run to timetable and to budget.

“We know that bands are ready to come back, promoters are calling us regularly wanting to know what’s happening. We won’t have an issue with demand.

“We will be creating a world class venue for bigger audiences.”

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Mr Reynolds added that the Grand Slam of Darts is scheduled to take place at Aldersley Leisure Village over the next two years before returning to the Civic in 2021.

Gerwyn Price won the Grand Slam Darts at its temporary home of Aldersley Leisure Village last year

As part of the revamp, the combined capacity at both halls will increase to 4,600 standing and 3,130 seating.

The Civic’s ballroom-style ‘sprung’ dance floor will be refurbished, while each hall will get a new larger bar, extended stages, extra toilet facilities, additional balconies, bigger seats and a new air conditioning system.

Plans to replace the roof have been shelved but repairs will be carried out.

The work, which will be carried out by the Walsall-based Shaylor Group, is being funded by the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership, borrowing and the sale of council buildings.

Work on the venue was first planned in 2015 at a cost of £10.4m, with a scheduled reopening date of November 2016.

It closed in December 2015, with the project the priced at £14.4m and a new opening date of March 2018 set.

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

A report last June criticised Wolverhampton Council’s management of the scheme, saying that initial budget projections had been “unrealistic”.

Bosses also said the authority is considering legal action against external parties previously involved in the botched revamp.

How it’s all gone wrong for 'The Civic'

It has hosted Chuck Berry, Oasis, Slade and Robert Plant, was the home of the record-breaking Blast Off! club night, and is thought to be Europe’s oldest rock ‘n’ roll venue.

But after a series of failings on the part of Wolverhampton Council, the project to revamp the city’s Civic halls spiralled out of control. Here’s where it all went wrong:

March 2015 – Wolverhampton Council announce plans to close the Civic halls for a major revamp, saying the famous old venue is no longer fit for purpose.

The cost is put at £10.4 million, including an increased capacity and a new balcony for the Wulfrun Hall. Bosses say it will be fully reopened for the Grand Slam of Darts in November 2016.

December 2015 ­– the Civic halls close for what is now a £14.4 million refurbishment that bosses say will “set the venue up for the next 100 years”.

It includes plans for new bars, a new ceiling and extended stages, with capacity increased to 2,500 seats and 3,500 standing. The venue is expected to fully reopen in March 2018.

An artist's impression from 2016 showcasing how the revamped Wolverhampton Civic halls would look

January 2017 – The completion date is pushed back to October 2018 after structural problems emerge. Council bosses also promise to find a new home for Civic’s historic organ.

August 2017 – A further delay is announced following the discovery of what council bosses call “small amount of asbestos”.

October 2017 – the venue temporarily reopens for a series of shows, including the Grand Slam of Darts and a gig by rock legend Robert Plant.

Robert Plant on stage at The Civic in November 2017

November 2017 – Wolverhampton Council announces it has scrapped the original scheme after major issues emerge, including the need for a new roof, new electrics and a substantial asbestos removal programme.

It is revealed that the project is likely to cost at least £36m, with bosses also considering ditching the revamp entirely.

January 2018 – It emerges that work on the halls had to be halted due to engineers discovering its foundations were in danger of being crushed.

January 2018 – Councillors approve an extra £23.6m for the scheme and announce a new opening date of autumn 2020.

June 2018 – a shock report brands the council’s project management of the scheme “inadequate” and reveals initial budget projections were unrealistic. Tory councillors accuse the authority of demonstrating “appalling neglect” over the development.

June 2018 – it emerges that the council has spent almost £2m on “design and trial fees” for the project.

July 2018 – Wolverhampton Council’s then managing director, Keith Ireland, admits he has no idea when the project will be finished and how much it will cost. He told councillors that “intrusive surveys” had not been done at the start of the project, admitting: “This is pretty disastrous for us.”

July 2018 – Council bosses reveal they are considering legal action against previous advisers involved in the project.

February 2019 – True to its pledge, the council does indeed find a new home for the Civic’s “priceless” organ – a landfill site – after admitting the 80-year-old instrument had been wrecked by asbestos.

March 2019 – The council announces the halls will reopen in autumn 2021 at a cost of £38.1m.

Relief as Civic revamp back on track

It has been an unmitigated disaster – but the restoration of Wolverhampton’s Civic halls is finally back on track after a series of delays.

The ambitious project, which was initially unveiled back in 2015, has been hampered by problems almost from its onset – some of them down to bad luck and bad advice, others the result of rank incompetence on the part of the city council.

The Labour-run authority has today announced that preliminary work is finally set to be completed by the end of April, when construction can start with a view to opening the venue in autumn 2021.

It will cost £38.1m – some £27.7m more than was first projected.

But as the city’s motto goes, ‘Out of Darkness Cometh Light’, and council bosses believe that after all the turmoil the all new Civic and Wulfrun halls will be venues that the whole region can be proud of for years to come.

Revellers at the well-known Blast Off club night at the Civic Hall in 2014

They say it will boost the city’s economy by £7.6m a year and support 548 jobs, with annual visitor numbers expected to be around 180,000.

The work will see capacity across both venues increase to 7,730 (4,600 standing or 3,130 seating).

Each hall will get a new larger bar, extended stages, extra toilet facilities, additional balconies, bigger seats and a new air conditioning system.

And according to Ged Lucas, the council’s strategic director for place, the halls will be aiming to cater for new types of clientèle in a bid to maximise revenue.

“Our expectation is that we want to market the place far more as a daytime, as well as a night-time venue,” he told the Star.

Inside Wolverhampton Civic Hall in 2016 during the early stages of the delayed revamp

“We want to do different kinds of events, like awards events... weddings is definitely one of the things that we want to do.

“Our aim is to make the place more open and more accessible to a wider range of functions and a wider range of people.”

There are also bold ambitions for the halls to compete with other venues in the region when it comes to attracting top level bands.

“Our capacity for the Civic in terms of standing will be getting on towards 3,500, which allows us to compete at a slightly higher level than we have done in the past,” Mr Lucas added.

The tale of woe surrounding the 80-year-old venue’s revamp involves a litany of errors.

Many of the failings were detailed in a bombshell report ordered by the council last year, which said the authority had set an unrealistic budget alongside a flawed contingency plan when it launched the scheme.

“The importance of the project was underestimated from the outset in terms of the risk it posed to the Wolverhampton economy and reputational risk to the council,” it said.

Extra security measures introduced outside The Civic in 2017

Initial cost projections for the job were laughably off-the-mark, with bosses hoping to complete a significant overhaul for £10.4m in around a year. Surveys were inadequate, failing to reveal the extent of structural damage to the building.

During the first two years of the project barely a month went by without new – and costly – problems emerging.

It was delayed when a small amount of asbestos was found, before later works revealed the venue was riddled with the stuff.

“Part of the refurbishment is making sure that the structure of the building is right,” Mr Lucas said.

“The nature of the asbestos was sprayed asbestos, rather than sheet. That is more difficult to remove and added to the complexity of the programme.

“While you can never say that one of these old buildings is completely asbestos free, the extent to which it has been pulled back to its bare walls, I would be very surprised if there was any asbestos left.”

The venue also required a complete electrical rewire and had serious issues with its roof and foundations – all of which the council was blissfully unaware of when it planned the restoration.

Wolverhampton Civic pictured back in 1968

Wednesfield North councillor Philip Bateman summed up the thoughts of many when he said at the time: “We seem to have lost control altogether. It seems everybody has been taken for a ride on this.”

Aside from ballooning in cost, the revamp has had a tragic consequence in the destruction of the Civic’s 80-year-old organ.

Despite it being considered one of the finest examples of its kind in Europe, the council foolishly decided to leave the historic instrument in situ during the revamp works.

The organ has now been wrecked by asbestos, its 6,200 pipes dragged away in council wagons and dumped in a landfill site.

Councillor John Reynolds, the city’s economy boss, says there are no plans to replace it.

The scheme is set to be signed off at a cabinet meeting on March 5.

Peter Madeley

By Peter Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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