Community group casts doubt on funding for Bishop's Stortford's new arts centre
A cross-party group scrutinising plans for Old River Lane (ORL) has accused East Herts Council of treating Bishop's Stortford residents with contempt.
The authority has scaled down its plans for an arts centre as the cornerstone of its proposals for a cultural quarter in the Causeway and focused on delivering a five-screen cinema complex.
Originally East Herts promised 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.
But a change in government lending rules and the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis has forced a drastic rethink. Now the district council says: "The revised scheme provides a smaller arts centre without an auditorium.
"Although the arts centre doesn't include an auditorium, the building will be iconic as the original design and it does retain a strong arts element by allowing a live arts programme to be delivered through the flexible design of cinema, foyer and outdoor space."
That decision has been strongly criticised by both the town's business and arts community and according to the Old River Lane Working Group, the deletion of the theatre space casts doubt on financing for the project.
Spokesman David Jacobs said: "East Herts Council secured funding for the development of Old River Lane from among others the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). This funding comprises a £6m grant and £3.6m interest-free loan and came with conditions, including a requirement that the development includes a 'theatre'. That condition remains in place.
"Given the Council's decision on March 18 to replace the proposed arts centre with a five-screen cinema, the ORL Working Group were keen to understand which part of the current scheme constitutes the 'theatre' for the purposes of the funding commitment and what that facility comprises in terms of size, function and seating capacity?"
The council is clear: "This isn't just a cinema – the cinema spaces will be designed flexibly to enable the delivery of a live programme of events. The foyer space will be designed to allow for a live concept programme and will also be used as gallery space and there will be a focus on using the outdoor space to deliver an outdoor programme of live events.
"It is anticipated that the live programme will consist of spoken word events, such as comedians, single person shows and small music performances, as well as live streaming of National Theatre and other events in the indoor spaces. The outdoor space will provide the opportunity for larger performance, be it music, comedy, theatre or live screening of theatre or sports events."
Mr Jacobs said: "We suspect this simply means acts might be able to stand in front of the cinema screen and perform, which of course they can in any cinema in theory."
He was also scathing about the potential for the foyer to double as a performance space and said: "The people of Bishop's Stortford are being treated with contempt. We are being asked to believe that a cinema is not a cinema, that a foyer is a theatre, and that anyone who asks awkward questions should go away.
"East Herts Council need to come clean and admit that they are unable to meet the LEP requirement to build a theatre – not theatre 'space' or any such weasel words – and re-negotiate the funding agreement with Herts LEP."
He described the authority's assurances that the concept was at an early design stage as "a masterpiece of obfuscation" and said demands to see the detailed business case presented to councillors in March were still unanswered.
A spokesman for East Herts Council said the district was in regular communication with Hertfordshire LEP, which was aware of the changes to the ORL scheme.
He said: "Our LEP funding arrangements allow for project changes to be applied and we are working with the LEP to ensure that the current scheme amendments are reflected within our funding agreement."
The council's plans also include demolition of the 200-seat United Reformed Church Hall in Water Lane as part of the wider transformation of the Causeway.
The council's development partner Cityheart is planning 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.
Work is already underway on a £16m multi-storey car park with 546 bays at Northgate End to replace spaces lost in the Causeway.
As part of that project, contractor Rydon has been forced to demolish a partially constructed four-storey, mixed-use building with commercial space at ground level and 15 flats above after inconsistencies were detected in the concrete used.
The estimated £0.5m bill is being footed by the builder, not East Herts Council.