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‘Arts centre without a roof’: We can help restore a sense of pride in Stortford by putting on a professional programme of events at Old River Lane until there’s money for the real deal





Nothing has demonstrated more effectively the power of the performing arts to add a layer of emotional reality to sterile facts than the recent TV production Mr Bates vs The Post Office.

It enabled us to feel how it must be for the victims of such a gross miscarriage of justice and created outrage across the nation, forcing the Government to act in days rather than years to put it right.

Acceptance of such victimisation is contrary to our culture. We have been moved as a community and demanded action.

ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office demonstrated the power of the performing arts. Credit: ITV
ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office demonstrated the power of the performing arts. Credit: ITV

Such is the power of theatre and the performing arts to make us think, to make us do. It enriches us by giving us other dimensions in which to consider life and an emotional experience that brings us a better understanding of the culture that we are a part of. Without it we are diminished, disconnected and disadvantaged, and this is the true value of an arts centre as a cultural focus.

Effort spent on providing access to cultural activities locally is increasingly recognised by local authorities as a significant contributor to ‘placemaking’. Internet research tells us that “placemaking initiatives create a greater desire to visit and dwell in an area and greater demand to locate there permanently. Placemaking happens when buildings are transformed into vibrant urban spaces that offer wellbeing, pleasure and inspiration.”

Placemaking is more than just building, it includes paying attention to the physical, cultural and social identity of a place. For many communities, placemaking has been a way to reimagine and renovate their public places. Placemaking can empower communities to create a sense of belonging and lead to community pride.

Old River Lane: The proposed arts centre still needs to be an essential part of the redevelopment, says Chas Gill
Old River Lane: The proposed arts centre still needs to be an essential part of the redevelopment, says Chas Gill

Where is the sense of pride in our town, our desire to have a rich and vibrant future built on a heritage of which we can be justly proud, but which isn’t fixing us in the past with lashings of nostalgia?

Why are we always moaning about everything, treating all incentives with cynical and sarcastic responses (the much-maligned Christmas ice rink being a classic case in point)?

Why are we collectively in such a bad mood, reflected in the way we increasingly seem to put self before community and good manners and consideration for others appear to be things of the past?

Is it because Bishop’s Stortford isn’t a ‘place’ in the placemaking sense?

Old River Lane: “Our current district council is to be applauded for recognising the importance of such a complex as a central focus for placemaking in Stortford”
Old River Lane: “Our current district council is to be applauded for recognising the importance of such a complex as a central focus for placemaking in Stortford”

We may have many reasons for living here, but I’m pretty sure that, for the vast majority, pride in our town currently isn’t one of them.

Old River Lane (ORL) was originally conceived to kick-start the placemaking process in Stortford. The proposed arts centre, a major part of the cultural identity of our ‘place’, would have been – and still needs to be – an essential part of the redevelopment.

For the same reason, the development of the rest of the site needs to tie in with the placemaking objective of being of high architectural quality, culturally focused and the epicentre for change that will elevate the remainder of our place (our town) and its people to a point of pride, where we and others will want to live, visit and enjoy.

With the financially forced cancellation (I prefer ‘deferral’) of the originally proposed arts centre, there is a serious risk that the cultural elements of the redevelopment could be lost forever. In a future scenario, where money again becomes available, there would be nowhere else for it to go if the currently allocated land is repurposed as an extension of the commercial development.

Our current district council is to be applauded for recognising the importance of such a complex as a central focus for placemaking in Stortford and has ring-fenced the land for its original purpose in any new planning application.

There is more to be done, however. Any new commercial application must take on board the future existence of an arts complex and be complementary to it if the full benefits of a cultural focal point are to be realised. We will need to be firm with developers to make this happen.

Meanwhile, the ring-fenced land is given over to community use. I think of that as an arts centre without a roof. With professional management, a programme of outdoor and tented events could be put in place that would enable a wide range of cultural activities throughout the year.

Stortford people would be attracted to and enjoy these events and begin to think of the site as an integral part of their cultural and leisure activities.

However, this is no job for amateurs. It needs to be managed and promoted and worthwhile if it is to be used.

Last month’s skating rink was a tentative, low-cost toe in the water and, whilst attracting derision from some, gave pleasure to many more. For Christmas 2024, the real thing, in a big tent, might be feasible, but it needs proper showbusiness management to make it work. (We have quite a bit of that at South Mill Arts in case anyone has forgotten!).

This is but one way in which we could turn the place around. Visiting circus, drive-in cinema, open-air festivals – the list is endless. We can do this until money is available to put a roof over it all.

Do it well, using those that know how, and we will achieve something positive to cheer us up and make us proud of who we are and where we live.



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