A cross-party group scrutinising plans for Old River Lane (ORL) has accused East Herts Council of treating Bishop’s Stortford residents with contempt.
The authority has scaled down its plans for an arts centre as the cornerstone of its proposals for a cultural quarter in the Causeway and focused on delivering a five-screen cinema complex.
Originally East Herts promised a 544-seat auditorium, a studio theatre of 100-150 seats, a four-screen cinema with 330 seats and rehearsal rooms plus meeting and office space, a foyer, a gallery and a café bar. It was also envisioned that Herts County Council’s library would move into the new building from its base opposite.
But a change in government lending rules and the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis has forced a drastic rethink. Now the district council says: “The revised scheme provides a smaller arts centre without an auditorium.
“Although the arts centre doesn’t include an auditorium, the building will be iconic as the original design and it does retain a strong arts element by allowing a live arts programme to be delivered through the flexible design of cinema, foyer and outdoor space.”
That decision has been strongly criticised by both the town’s business and arts community and according to the Old River Lane Working Group, the deletion of the theatre space casts doubt on financing for the project.
Spokesman David Jacobs said: “East Herts Council secured funding for the development of Old River Lane from among others the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). This funding comprises a £6m grant and £3.6m interest-free loan and came with conditions, including a requirement that the development includes a ‘theatre’. That condition remains in place.
“Given the Council’s decision on March 18 to replace the proposed arts centre with a five-screen cinema, the ORL Working Group were keen to understand which part of the current scheme constitutes the ‘theatre’ for the purposes of the funding commitment and what that facility comprises in terms of size, function and seating capacity?”
The council is clear: “This isn’t just a cinema – the cinema spaces will be designed flexibly to enable the delivery of a live programme of events. The foyer space will be designed to allow for a live concept programme and will also be used as gallery space and there will be a focus on using the outdoor space to deliver an outdoor programme of live events.
“It is anticipated that the live programme will consist of spoken word events, such as comedians, single person shows and small music performances, as well as live streaming of National Theatre and other events in the indoor spaces. The outdoor space will provide the opportunity for larger performance, be it music, comedy, theatre or live screening of theatre or sports events.”
Mr Jacobs said: “We suspect this simply means acts might be able to stand in front of the cinema screen and perform, which of course they can in any cinema in theory.”
He was also scathing about the potential for the foyer to double as a performance space and said: “The people of Bishop’s Stortford are being treated with contempt. We are being asked to believe that a cinema is not a cinema, that a foyer is a theatre, and that anyone who asks awkward questions should go away.
“East Herts Council need to come clean and admit that they are unable to meet the LEP requirement to build a theatre – not theatre ‘space’ or any such weasel words – and re-negotiate the funding agreement with Herts LEP.”