Old River Lane: Cross-party group questions true cost of Bishop's Stortford town centre plans
The cross-party Old River Lane (ORL) Working Group has set out its concerns about East Herts Council's business case for the Causeway redevelopment.
Ahead of an extraordinary online meeting of the authority on Thursday (Mar 18) at 4pm to discuss money-saving changes to the scheme, including the removal of a 500-plus seat theatre and its replacement with a five-screen multiplex, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green party activists have challenged the Conservatives' costings.
EHC has confirmed plans to halve the original £30m cost of the arts centre to £15.5m and scrap proposals for 31 extra new homes – on top of the original 167 – which were part of an alternative £23.5m compromise scheme. The business case said: "The end result is a better building at a better price."
ORL working group secretary David Jacobs said members were pursuing East Herts for full access to figures in appendices to the main report which will be discussed in private when the meeting goes into a closed session.
He said: "Our immediate concerns with the 'business case' are it is unclear how removing the residential element of the arts centre scheme improves its viability. The report says that the residential element had an estimated cost of approximately £5m. The loss of sales receipts for those residential units do not appear to have been taken into account in this report.
"The figures which purport to set out the borrowing requirement, return on investment and subsidy for the scheme, with and without the arts centre, are impossible to analyse without the detailed figures. The claim that an arts centre scheme will deliver a lower return on investment and require a higher subsidy are impossible to substantiate on the basis of the documents that have been disclosed."
The group also questions why the impact of a new, five-screen cinema on existing facilities at Empire in Anchor Street and South Mill Arts had not been evaluated.
Mr Jacobs said: "The financial assumptions that have been made in order to conclude that a multi-screen cinema on ORL would be financially viable are not explained anywhere.
"It is clear that the district council has not carried out any analysis at all of the extent to which its new version of the ORL scheme will have an adverse impact elsewhere in the town."
The arts centre is part of a wider scheme, to be developed by Cityheart, which now includes 137 homes, the addition of 90 'senior living' apartments, 17,000 sq ft (1,579 sq m) of commercial and retail units and 30,000 sq ft (2,787 sq m) of office and workspace to create a cultural quarter called Old River Lane.
The cross-party group is working up proposals for a rival scheme to use the site for a further education college.