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Old River Lane: East Herts Council cuts almost £15m from cost of proposed new cinema-led arts centre in Stortford



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A £15.5m stand-alone cinema-led arts centre for Bishop's Stortford town centre, costing around half of the original vision, has emerged as East Herts Council's favoured plan for regenerating the Causeway.

Plans for 31 extra homes on top of the 167 originally proposed in its its Old River Lane project have been ditched, potentially freeing up a larger space for live performances.

The authority has published its business case for the cornerstone of its ORL scheme ahead of an extraordinary meeting on Thursday (Mar 18) at 4pm to discuss the future of the whole development. Residents can submit questions to the council before members debate the report and go into a closed session to consider commercially sensitive documents relating to the scheme.

In 2017 the council decided to "breathe new life" into the town centre. In 2019 its development partner, Cityheart, came up with a scheme for 137 homes, 13,000 sq ft (1,207 sq m) of retail and restaurant space and offices extending over 31,000 sq ft (2,879 sq m).

At the heart of this cultural quarter was a £30m arts centre which East Herts hoped would comprise a 544-seat auditorium, a studio theatre of 100-150 seats, a four-screen cinema with 330 seats and rehearsal rooms plus meeting and office space, a foyer, a gallery and a café bar. It was also envisioned that Herts County Council's library would move into the new building from its base opposite.

The district and town councils came up with a deal to fund construction and share a £500,000 annual subsidy.

East Herts Council leader Cllr Linda Haysey at the temporary car park in Old River Lane. Picture: Vikki Lince
East Herts Council leader Cllr Linda Haysey at the temporary car park in Old River Lane. Picture: Vikki Lince

East Herts says the plans fell apart in February 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic punched a hole in its finances. Its difficulties were compounded when the Government changed local authority lending legislation.

As a result, in January this year, council leader Cllr Linda Haysey confirmed the scheme had to change to make it financially viable, so the authority remodelled the arts centre scope to remove the auditorium and studio theatre, and instead create a five-screen multiplex with an additional 31 new homes and 2,000 sq ft (185 sq m) of commercial space. This would have cost £23.5m to deliver with an estimated £1.1m subsidy over six years.

Further work has established that a cheaper scheme can be delivered if the extra residential accommodation is removed, saving £5m, and this space is used to make the arts centre more "efficient and cost-effective".

The council says it would cost £15.5m with a £693,000 subsidy over seven years and "the end result is a better building at a better price".

Representatives of Contexture Theatre, Bishop's Stortford Art Society, Bishop's Stortford Sinfonia, Cantate choir and Laughing Bishops Comedy Club – all opposed to the cinema-led scheme – on the Old River Lane site (45059179)
Representatives of Contexture Theatre, Bishop's Stortford Art Society, Bishop's Stortford Sinfonia, Cantate choir and Laughing Bishops Comedy Club – all opposed to the cinema-led scheme – on the Old River Lane site (45059179)

Cityheart has also revised its wider scheme with 137 homes, the addition of 90 'senior living' apartments, around 17,000 sq ft (1,579 sq m) of commercial and retail units and around 30,000 sq ft (2,787 sq m) of office and workspace.

The plans in all their forms have been controversial from the start. The original scheme sparked protests from supporters of South Mill Arts, who feared it would damage the former Rhodes Arts Complex.

More recently, district council opposition parties have argued for a complete rethink. Labour has mooted plans for a further education college on the site while the town's arts and business communities have protested at removal of the theatre auditorium.

United in opposition to Old River Lane (45059176)
United in opposition to Old River Lane (45059176)

If the new strategy is agreed at Thursday's meeting, which will be streamed live on YouTube, the next step is to create a masterplan this spring followed by further public consultation.



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