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Old River Lane: ‘This is not just about enhanced arts provision, it is a fight for the heart of our town’





The campaign for a new arts centre in Bishop’s Stortford has eaten up many column inches. Sadly, however, we are still no closer to a resolution. If anything, we are further away, writes Simon Anderson.

The change of administration at East Herts Council (EHC) has brought none of the promised clarity and all we are left with is a vague ‘commitment’ to the concept of an arts centre.

Rumours are already circulating that EHC is preparing to plead poverty and kill the idea altogether. And who can blame them? It’s all so complicated, contentious and expensive. Much better to take the easy way out: claim it’s unaffordable, blame the previous administration and concentrate on short-term wins.

Old River Lane
Old River Lane

Wherever you come down on the arts centre argument, we cannot lose sight of the bigger issue. This is not just about enhanced arts provision, it is a fight for the heart of our town, and once a decision is made (or not made), we will have to live with the consequences for a generation.

Does that sound overly dramatic? Well, why don’t you join me in the future for a moment…

Cityheart submits a new planning application. Water Lane Hall and Charringtons House are demolished. The arts centre is ‘deferred’ (for a new administration to deal with). A plot is left for it, but the building itself and its usage are left completely undefined.

Cityheart's vision for Old River Lane
Cityheart's vision for Old River Lane

Cityheart builds its flats (double the amount originally agreed), which goes massively over budget. The momentum of those advocating for an arts centre is gradually worn down and the idea dies. The plot reserved for it is either converted at huge cost into a public square or permission is given for the developer to build more flats.

And what are we left with? A town centre blighted by five-storey flats and (at best) a public square that is supposed to double as a performance/gathering space but will seldom be used. A town square only works if it gets footfall from shops, restaurants, public amenities and attractions around it. Otherwise, there is no reason for people to go there.

You may not like or agree with the above vision, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not a likely possibility given the town’s development track record.

But why does it matter? It matters because it could spell the death of our town centre.

“South Mill Arts is too far out of the town to benefit the restaurants and bars”
“South Mill Arts is too far out of the town to benefit the restaurants and bars”

The constant turnover of restaurants is testament to the fact that the town finds it difficult to sustain itself after dark. A thriving town needs a reason for people to stay after the shops close. It relies on entertainment venues to draw people in: nightclubs, theatres, concert venues, youth activities, community spaces.

Let’s be honest, Stortford currently has next to nothing in this regard. South Mill Arts is too far out of the town to benefit the restaurants and bars.

Stortford is a town of 40,000 people with a catchment area of double that. At the current rate of growth, there could be 120,000 in the local area within a decade. Where are all those people going to go? Out of town, that’s where; where there’s actually something to do.

Paddy Lennox runs Laughing Bishops Comedy Club at Water Lane United Reformed Church Hall
Paddy Lennox runs Laughing Bishops Comedy Club at Water Lane United Reformed Church Hall

They will stop identifying Stortford as a place to spend leisure hours. As a result, those proactive in the arts scene will move as well. If Paddy Lennox’s hugely popular Laughing Bishops Comedy Club at Water Lane Hall is bulldozed, he will simply take his audience elsewhere.

And so we come full circle to the arts centre. Finding a home for local arts organisations is only part of the argument. The larger issue is that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to breathe life into our stagnant town centre.

Old River Lane
Old River Lane

It’s easy to argue that as things stand, arts provision in Bishops Stortford is appropriate for the size of the town. But within a decade it most definitely won’t be. As the population and arts interest grow, there will be no infrastructure to support it. South Mill Arts will always be limited by the footprint of the building and the lack of parking.

And what about affordability (because that’s all you will hear)? Initiatives like this are never affordable. There are always compelling alternative uses for the money. They are a choice to be made based on legacy, long-term necessity and return on community investment, and the consortium behind the proposed arts centre is experienced and confident enough to work with the council to make the project sustainable.

The town council seems quite happy to spend £3m buying the lease of South Mill Arts with absolutely no expected return on its investment. Could this money be better spent with an eye to the future, refurbishing Water Lane Hall or refitting Coopers (if it is still available), or providing seed money for a deferred arts centre on the ORL site? Ultimately, it’s all about choices.

Let’s hope we make the right choice, because as always we’re in danger of caving into the short-termism that has blighted British local politics for decades.

Simon Anderson, of Contexture Theatre
Simon Anderson, of Contexture Theatre

Simon Anderson is a director with his wife, Gailie Pollock, of Bishop’s Stortford-based professional theatre company Contexture and is a resident of Bishop’s Stortford.



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