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Bishop's Stortford Town Council rejects Old River Lane regeneration plan





Bishop's Stortford's mayor has condemned the Old River Lane planning application as an "exercise in ambiguity, smoke and mirrors".

Cityheart, East Herts Council's development partner, has submitted an outline planning application for the Causeway which fixes the layout and access for the site but gives no certainty about key elements like the arts and cultural centre.

The £30m building was originally intended to include a 544-seat theatre, but the auditorium was scrapped when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the council's finances and it promised a smaller, £15.5m cinema-led scheme instead.

Mayor Cllr Dave Anderson
Mayor Cllr Dave Anderson

At a meeting of the town council's planning committee on Monday evening (Jan 9), Conservative mayor Cllr Dave Anderson accused the Tory-controlled district council and Cityheart of trying "to pull the wool over the eyes" of residents with the lack of detail in the documents.

A "disgusted" Cllr Richard Townsend, who is also an East Herts Council Liberal Democrat member, said: "The whole presentation of this by whoever has compiled the application is structured for confusion. It has gone away from what was planned and what we wanted. We've been thoroughly sold down the old river."

Conservative Cllr Keith Warnell was an East Herts councillor and Bishop's Stortford's member of the Old River Lane Steering Group when the scheme was conceived. He said: "The concept of this was that it was driven by the arts… that was the draw."

From left, Cllrs Richard Townsend, Keith Warnell and Jill Sortwell (61843270)
From left, Cllrs Richard Townsend, Keith Warnell and Jill Sortwell (61843270)

But, he said, East Herts' financial difficulties had resulted in a scheme where the arts centre was secondary to money-spinning new homes and offices, which would not drive footfall in the town centre and generate trade for high street shops and restaurants.

Cllr Jill Sortwell, the sole Labour member of the town council, said the multiplex plans were both a waste of money and a waste of the site. She demanded that an East Herts Council planning officer appear before the committee to add clarity.

She said: "It's got to come back in a totally different form. They have to pull the plug on this now or we're going to end up with a white elephant that nobody's going to go to."

The application features up to 225 homes, including 75 extra care properties, as well as office blocks and commercial units.

The site plan for Old River Lane
The site plan for Old River Lane

It necessitates demolition of the United Reformed Church Hall and three houses in Water Lane plus the 1960s office block Charringtons House.

The committee voted to tell East Herts that the application should be rejected and come back in a form that gives detail about what exactly will be delivered.

Their decision reflected the concerns of Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation (BSCF) and the Old River Lane Cross-Party Working Group, a coalition of Liberal Democrats, Labour and Green Party members, who addressed the committee.

Illustrative image of the arts centre (61797320)
Illustrative image of the arts centre (61797320)

Paul Dean, federation chairman, said BSCF, which represents the town's residents' associations, was not against regeneration of the Causeway as a leisure destination but opposed the current proposals as "inadequate" and "premature".

He believed the development was dominated by housing and called for an assessment of the carbon footprint of demolishing the church hall and Charringtons, only to build replacement facilities.

Artist's impression (61797353)
Artist's impression (61797353)

He also demanded a revised heritage report reflecting the hall's new status as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) and voiced serious concerns about the potential excessive height of planned buildings and the impact on traffic around the town.

On behalf of the ORL working group, Yvonne Estop-Wood and Stephen Skinner said that a full, detailed application should have been made for the whole site.

Ms Estop-Wood told members: "Most of the submitted information is illustrative and not up for approval now."

She said that without information about the arts centre's facilities and timetable for delivery, removing the church hall could not be justified and that knocking down one office block to build another was "ludicrous".

She conceded that redeveloping the Causeway surface car park was a sound planning policy, but without exploring alternative approaches to the overall design, East Herts and Cityheart had created a problem for the town.



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