Old River Lane opposition group predicts cost crisis for East Herts Council
The group lobbying to open a further education college rather than an arts centre at Old River Lane has condemned East Herts Council.
Last Thursday the authority held an online extraordinary meeting to discuss plans for a cultural quarter on Bishop's Stortford's Causeway site.
A £30m arts centre with a 544-seat theatre was supposed to sit at the heart of the retail, restaurant and residential development by Cityheart, but a double whammy of coronavirus and a change in Government lending rules for councils has blown the budget apart.
Instead, the district council's Conservative administration has removed the auditorium from the scheme and substituted a business case for a £15.5m facility with five cinema screens – to the dismay of the town's arts and business communities.
David Jacobs, secretary of the Old River Lane Working Group established earlier this year by the district's Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties, said: "East Herts Council's decision at Thursday's extraordinary meeting to give the go-ahead to the revised scheme to develop Old River Lane flies in the face of almost universal opposition from the residents, businesses and community groups of Bishop's Stortford.
"The decision was forced through by the majority group without consideration of the widespread objections raised to the scheme and without any genuine attempt to address the concerns or answer the questions of opposition groups."
He said the meeting was a contradictory fiasco and that discussing such a major investment on a key site without plans on show was "outrageous".
Mr Jacobs, who is membership officer of the Hertford & Stortford Constituency Labour Party, said: "There will be a clear conflict of interest when this application comes before the planning committee which EHC needs to address urgently.
"Councillors were also not notified that demolition of the United Reformed Church hall conflicts with planning policy... namely, that removal of a building for community use will be refused unless replaced. This is the council's own planning policy and they have already bought the property for demolition without any intention of replacing it."
He questioned the council's calculations about the revised cost of the development and warned: "EHC finances are already under extreme pressure. EHC faces an annual budget deficit growing up to 40% in four years, which will necessitate drastic cuts to services.
"It is in the council's interests to make the residents of Bishop's Stortford believe that this was a final decision and any further opposition to the scheme will be futile. We do not believe this to be the case – planning permission is far from a foregone conclusion. The costs of this scheme will inevitably escalate and EHC will need to look again."
The ORL working group believes its plans to convert the Charringtons House building into a college has "a strong economic, educational and carbon-reduction business case".