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Old River Lane: Liberal Democrats protest at demolition of United Reformed Church hall

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The planned demolition of Bishop’s Stortford’s United Reformed Church (URC) hall has prompted protests from East Herts Liberal Democrats.

At an online extraordinary meeting of the district council last Thursday, the Conservative administration confirmed the community and performance space in Water Lane – home of Paddy Lennox's monthly Laughing Bishops Comedy Club – will be knocked down as part of its plans to turn the Causeway into a cultural quarter called Old River Lane.

Opposition members spoke against the scheme, which has been amended to replace a £30m arts centre with 544-seat theatre auditorium with a £15.5m facility to show films on five screens.

The United Reformed Church hall viewed from Old River Lane (45413729)
The United Reformed Church hall viewed from Old River Lane (45413729)

The blueprint for developer Cityheart also includes 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.

Lib Dem group leader Cllr Mione Goldspink said: “I was really shocked to hear that the Tories were planning, quite deliberately, to destroy a valuable community asset as part of the Old River Lane development. Where will all the many community groups who presently use the hall be expected to go?”

During the meeting, the Conservatives blocked a Lib Dem move to involve performing arts groups, other community organisations and residents in planning use of the spaces within the shell of the new arts centre. They argued statutory consultations would be too little too late.

Cllr Chris Wilson said: “I was very dismayed by the Conservative group’s total disregard for local sentiment and representations. If they had been truly listening to residents and arts groups both at the meeting and before, they would have heard that the plans as they stand are not viable.

“No arts group has stated that they will use the arts centre in its present form, and a dislike of the proposals has been almost universal amongst the local residents who have expressed their views."

Cllr Sophie Bell expressed her disappointment at the omission of a studio theatre and suggested one could be built beneath a small car park on the URC hall site.

The Lib Dems also lambasted the addition of senior living apartments and planned access to the site, predicting tailbacks and congestion.

Cllr Goldspink added: “We are still not convinced that the people of Bishop’s Stortford wish to have a second multi-screen cinema in the centre of town. Seventeen people took the time and trouble to ask formal questions at the council meeting and this would indicate that we are not alone in our doubts.”

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