Old River Lane: 'Head rules heart' as East Herts Council scraps Bishop's Stortford new theatre plan
Bishop's Stortford residents have been urged to see the big picture as East Herts Council replaces plans for a theatre with proposals for a five-screen cinema.
Council leader Cllr Linda Haysey got backing for changes to the Old River Lane project at an extraordinary meeting of the authority behind closed doors last Wednesday (Jan 13) – and in an exclusive briefing with the Indie, she explained why head must now rule the heart.
The coronavirus crisis forced EHC in the autumn to review its entire £122m investment programme and now the axe has fallen in Bishop's Stortford.
Cllr Haysey said: "We reviewed all the business plans for all capital projects across the district. Old River Lane is the biggest and when we came to really dive down into the figures in the current situation, there was no way we could go forward, as a district council, with an auditorium-led arts centre."
Originally, the authority hoped to regenerate the Causeway with a new cultural quarter with a 544-seat theatre, built in partnership with the town council, at the heart of a £30m leisure facility.
The scheme, to be built by developer Cityheart on the council-owned site, also includes 150 homes, retail and commercial accommodation alongside a public space called Waytemore Square and a new woodland area. The £16m, 546-space, six-level multi-storey car park being built at Northgate End is the kick-start for the project.
New Government legislation has restricted the council's loan facilities in future and Cllr Haysey said pressing ahead with the theatre could have saddled East Herts with a £600,000 bill each year to subsidise the performance space.
"While we always recognised that an arts centre with a theatre-style auditorium would require a subsidy, in the end we could not justify that going forward," she said, adding that the commitment could have lasted for 30 years and she could not countenance passing that burden on.
Instead, the council wants to press forward with a five-screen cinema, with around 540 seats, offering blockbuster first releases, arthouse films and specialist showtimes for groups like mothers and toddlers, plus a café, meeting rooms, an art gallery and public space. She said there would still be room for small live performances and hoped for a skating rink outside in winter.
She said: "It will have everything except for a large auditorium."
A sombre Cllr Haysey admitted: "I was very much a driver of this [original plan] and I took it very badly when it was first put to me that the recommendation was that we not do it. It really was heart versus head."
She acknowledged she had made a commitment to deliver but was now convinced it would be "totally irresponsible to say we will press ahead".
Instead, she is focusing on the original rationale for regenerating the Causeway: "The driving force for putting an arts centre at Old River Lane was to refresh the town centre and increase footfall."
She believed a multiplex with other facilities all under one roof could achieve that aim and boost the night-time economy – regardless of the Empire cinema at Anchor Street and a big screen at South Mill Arts because "pitch and position were fundamentally important".
She said: "We will continue to talk with South Mill Arts and will work with them to have a complementary arts offer for the residents of Bishop's Stortford."
Cllr Haysey said that Cityheart was "still optimistic" it could make a start on enabling works this year after a supplementary planning document has been produced and planning permission granted.
Critics have called for publication of the council’s business plan for the scheme and further consultation. Cllr Haysey pledged that residents would be kept fully informed and she would reveal as much of the detail as commercial confidentiality allowed.
She also gave an assurance that flexibility would be built into the design to allow for a larger audience space in future if finances permitted.
But Cllr Haysey cautioned: "I think things will bounce back but they will be very different. I think we have to be aware there's a great deal of financial uncertainty."
She said the cost to the Government of Covid-19 across the country "would have to be found somewhere" and local authority funding was likely to change for the worse.
She said: "We have had to make a decision based on an uncertain future."