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Bishop’s Stortford Town Council’s Liberal Democrats demolish Labour’s Old River Lane proposals

Labour attempts to safeguard Water Lane United Reformed Church Hall and Charringtons House for the community have been rejected by Bishop’s Stortford Town Council.

Both buildings are set to be demolished as part of East Herts Council’s plans to redevelop The Causeway site in partnership with Cityheart.

While the district council’s Green and Liberal Democrat joint administration has paused plans for a £15.5m new arts centre there, the parties are pressing ahead with the rest of the Old River Lane scheme and are set to hive off 80% of the 5.2-acre site to the developer. The £2.8m sale of a 200-year lease will be completed once planning permission is granted.

Charringtons House
Charringtons House

In September last year, Cityheart withdrew plans to raze the buildings and construct new shops, restaurants, offices and homes. It has yet to submit alternative proposals.

Labour wants action in the meantime, but the town council’s Lib Dem administration voted against a motion proposed by Cllr Yvonne Estop (Lab, Central) to analyse all options for the URC hall – including a possible transfer of ownership – and to support the possible reuse of Charringtons House, which has been empty since last April.

Cllr Estop also wanted an urgent update on the project from EHC officers and a strategy to encourage more community groups to use the URC hall.

Labour's Cllr David Jacobs and Cllr Yvonne Estop
Labour's Cllr David Jacobs and Cllr Yvonne Estop

Before last May’s local elections, the Lib Dems shared Labour’s desire to save both buildings, telling the Indie: “Demolition of any building is contrary to the [district] council’s very own sustainability policies. Demolition is bad for the environment by the release of so much embedded carbon.

“We would keep both the URC Hall and the Charringtons building and refurbish them for the benefit of the community.”

Cllr Estop, who is also on EHC and chair of its development management committee, told a meeting of the town council that demolition did not have to be accepted as inevitable and as Cityheart had failed to secure planning permission, the agreement with East Herts could be terminated.

She said: “Cityheart is holding the town to ransom. The development agreement represents a huge risk for the town. I fear that the agreement is going to be an albatross around our necks.”

The United Reformed Church Hall
The United Reformed Church Hall

The town council’s leader, Cllr Miriam Swainston (Lib Dem, Chantry), suggested Cllr Estop’s proposals were outside the town council’s remit and encroached on EHC’s responsibilities.

She said it was not appropriate for the town council to quiz East Herts officers about the project’s progress – especially as answers could be provided by her and two other town councillors.

Cllr Swainston, Cllr Sarah Copley (Lib Dem, Silverleys) and Cllr Mione Golspink (Lib Dem, Thorley Manor South) also serve on EHC and are members of its Old River Lane Delivery Board.

Lib Dems Sarah Copley, Mione Goldspink and Miriam Swainston
Lib Dems Sarah Copley, Mione Goldspink and Miriam Swainston

Cllr Swainston said there was no point in analysing options or using town council resources as both buildings belonged to East Herts. “It’s not something that the town council should be taking on,” she said.

Her view was shared by the only Conservative at the meeting, Cllr John Wyllie (Con, Thorley Manor South). Instead, he advocated for East Herts cabinet members to be called in front of the town council.

The disused Causeway car park where Cityheart wants to build
The disused Causeway car park where Cityheart wants to build

Cllr Goldspink, who is EHC deputy leader and its executive member for neighbourhoods, added bluntly: “It’s a district council matter. I think it’s not appropriate for us to stick our oar in. It’s not appropriate to spend town council resources on a district council matter.”

Cllr David Jacobs (Lab, Central) vehemently disagreed. He said the town council was a key stakeholder in the Old River Lane project and should be a critical friend to the district.

He also challenged the Lib Dems’ reservations about using town council resources, pointing out the administration was spending £1m on a cycle path from Grange Paddocks to St Michael’s Hurst that will be built on East Herts land and be owned by Herts County Council.

Cllr Matthew Bird (Lab, Chantry) said he was “monumentally disappointed” by how the Lib Dems had shut down the debate about the future of the Causeway.

Cllr Estop summed up: “It’s East Herts land, but it’s our town.”

A Lib Dem motion to “fully participate” in consultation with EHC when there is new information about the project was passed.

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