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£19.9m for Hertford Theatre as East Herts Council slashes spending on Bishop's Stortford Old River Lane arts centre

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East Herts Council is pressing ahead with a £19.9m investment plan for Hertford Theatre as controversy continues over its scaled-down arts centre scheme for Bishop's Stortford.

The authority's development management committee has approved the council's plans to make Hertford Theatre "a beacon of sustainability for the county and for theatres".

The scheme has parallels with the revised proposals for EHC's Old River Lane scheme in Stortford.

Hertford Theatre Growth and Legacy Project (45818172)
Hertford Theatre Growth and Legacy Project (45818172)

Initially, the council promised a £30m arts centre with a 544-seat auditorium at its centre. But at a meeting last month, the project was downgraded to a £15.5m building with five cinema screens.

The Conservative administration blamed delays caused by legal challenges to the overall scheme which stopped the council from securing a low-cost loan before the Government changed local authority borrowing rules, as well as the continuing impact of the coronavirus crisis on EHC's finances.

Hertford Theatre will be redeveloped and expanded with first-release films on offer through the addition of three bespoke cinema screens, a brand new studio auditorium for smaller live acts and performances plus a plaza-style foyer with a riverside café-bar.

Bishop's Stortford. Cllr Linda Haysey outside Charringtons House. .Pic Vikki Lince. (45818225)
Bishop's Stortford. Cllr Linda Haysey outside Charringtons House. .Pic Vikki Lince. (45818225)

Rhys Thomas, director of Hertford Theatre, said: "Throughout the health crisis over the last year, the one thing that has been even more crucial and evident is a need to hold on to a sense of community. The improvement works will ensure that Hertford Theatre can meet demand and will sustainably stand the test of time.

"The theatre is such a hub, in the middle of Hertford and so well used by many community groups. The new opportunities and the emphasis on sustainability that the Growth and Legacy Project will bring are going to be exciting to watch take shape."

The theatre will close to the public from June 7 in preparation for works to begin in the summer/autumn. The next stage of the project is appointing the main contractor.

The United Reformed Church hall viewed from Water Lane (45818235)
The United Reformed Church hall viewed from Water Lane (45818235)

In Bishop's Stortford, the arts community is continuing to protest about the loss of the theatre auditorium in the ORL project and the planned demolition of the United Reformed Church hall in Water Lane, while opposition parties continue to press rival plans for a further education college in the Causeway.

EHC deputy leader and executive member for financial sustainability Cllr Geoff Williamson has already warned that a further delay of just 12 months will add £1.2m to the bill.

Cllr David Snowdon, a Bishop's Stortford Conservative who has been working behind the scenes, said the development had to go ahead now or it might never be built.

The district council's "high-end cinema offer" with five screens includes proposals to accommodate live performances in an 80-seat cinema with the potential to use the 150-seat screening room too.

As part of the regeneration of the Causeway site into the ORL cultural quarter, developer Cityheart also plans 137 homes, 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.

Construction of a £16m, six-level, multi-storey car park at Northgate End to replace Causeway spaces lost as a result is progressing.

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