Old River Lane: Bishop's Stortford arts centre critics attack East Herts Council over 'foolhardy' figures
Critics of East Herts Council's plans for Old River Lane in Bishop's Stortford have accused the council of risking millions of pounds on "unsubstantiated and extremely questionable financial predictions".
The Old River Lane Working Group, established by the district's Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties to scrutinise the plans, have obtained a heavily redacted copy of the authority's business case for the new cultural quarter in the Causeway.
Key figures in the document, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, have been obscured by the council, citing "commercial confidentiality". The ORL Working Group has appealed to the Information Commissioner to have the full version released.
Earlier this year, EHC said the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and changes to Government lending rules for local authorities meant its original scheme for a £30m arts centre including a 544-seat theatre was no longer viable. It unveiled a £15.5m venue with a five-screen multiplex instead.
The council's development partner, Cityheart, also revealed a revised scheme of 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.
David Jacobs, secretary of the ORL Working Group, said: "There can be no grounds for withholding information about contracts the council has already entered into, the value of land or property bought or sold, or the financial commitments made by the council acting as representatives of the people and taxpayers of East Herts.
"Even with the redacted business case, it is clear that the council is risking tens of millions of pounds of our money on unsubstantiated and extremely questionable financial predictions."
He said that council predictions that the cinema-led scheme would require an initial subsidy of £170,000 in 2024-25, reducing over the next seven years until it hits profit in Year 8 and then producing a surplus of £6.9m over 30 years, was based on "wildly optimistic assumptions" or "guesses" about cinema attendance.
The group estimated that each Bishop's Stortford resident would need to attend four screenings a year to make the council's figures correct.
Mr Jacobs said: "The council is taking the foolhardy decision of investing in a cinema at the point when interest in cinema is at a low ebb and likely to fall further. We consider the project likely to be a failure from the outset.
"In reality, almost all tickets sold for the proposed cinema on the ORL site will be at the expense of South Mill Arts and the existing multiplex in Anchor Street, where that enterprise and the surrounding businesses will be devastated by council-subsidised competition."
The group is also critical of the affordable housing element of the ORL scheme.
The viability of the development, Mr Jacobs said, was dependent on the council tearing up its own policy and offering only Discounted Market Dwellings, to be sold at 80% of open market value, and none for affordable rent.
He said: "We call upon East Herts Council to reconsider its decision to hide behind the spurious grounds of commercial sensitivity and publish the business case in full. If it is confident that the numbers add up then it has nothing to hide."
An EHC spokeswoman said: “The redacted information has been withheld due to its commercial confidentiality in that its disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act at this time would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of a legal person, including East Herts Council, as the public authority holding it.”