East Herts Council votes to push ahead with cinema plans for Old River Lane
A cinema-led arts centre for the heart of Bishop's Stortford moved a step closer on Thursday (March 18) after East Herts district councillors were told further delays would cost £1.2m.
At an online extraordinary meeting of the full council to discuss the business case for the whole Old River Lane development, members heard that a double whammy of the coronavirus crisis and changes to Government borrowing rules for local authorities had demolished hopes for a £30m facility.
East Herts originally hoped to build 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.
Cllr Geoffrey Williamson, the council's deputy leader and executive member for financial sustainability, said that "extraordinary circumstances" had forced drastic changes to the project, with further problems ahead if arts community calls for a moratorium were heeded.
He said delaying for even 12 months would add £1.2m to the council's costs and "only make the scheme harder to deliver further down the line".
Instead, the auditorium plan had to be abandoned in favour of a £15.5m “high-end cinema offer”. It will feature five screens with proposals to accommodate live performances in the 80-seat cinema with the potential to use the 150-seat screening room too.
Groups like Bishop's Stortford Sinfonia, Laughing Bishops Comedy Club and Contexture Theatre made their concerns clear about the inadequacy of those alternatives during a 40-minute question-and-answer session at the start of the meeting.
Their case was taken up by the council's Liberal Democrat group, led by Bishop's Stortford's Cllr Mione Goldspink, who tried to force through an amendment ensuring further consultation with the arts community and residents before designs emerge.
The opposition was especially concerned by loss of the United Reformed Church hall in Water Lane, now owned by the council, which will be demolished as part of plans for a cultural quarter on the Causeway and not replaced by comparable performance or community space within the new arts centre.
Cllr David Snowdon, a Bishop's Stortford Conservative, pushed home the point that the development had to go ahead now or it might never be built.
He said: "Like many people in this chamber, I was bitterly disappointed that we are not pushing ahead with the plans for a theatre-led project on Old River Lane. I was really excited by the scheme."
He said there had been a huge amount of work behind the scenes to rescue the £30m project.
"We looked at very many funding alternatives and ways to make the scheme work. Unfortunately, none of them quite reached the financial benchmarks required. That for me was a great shame."
But he said it was essential to redevelop the "key strategic site of Old River Lane" to achieve "the greatest public benefit and the best financial outcome for the council".
Cllr Snowdon stressed: "For me, that means voting for the cinema-led development. It offers strong public benefits and brings investment into our town. The calls from the opposition for delays or far-fetched investment plans will only increase costs and risk investment in Bishop's Stortford. We must tonight push ahead with this project and back the revised plans."
The council owns the Causeway site and is set to receive around £2.7m from its sale to development partner Cityheart, which now 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 already under way.
Following today's vote in favour of the business case, the next step is to create a masterplan this spring, with a pledge of renewed consultation with stakeholders and residents by the Conservative administration.