Councillor Williamson, Deputy Leader and Executive Member for
Financial Sustainability, presented a report on the Old River Lane
Business Plan. He ran through the history of the project from when
the Council bought the site five and a half years ago and the
council have shaped and refined its ambition and vision for the
site to be a complete regeneration of the Old River Lane area to
drive footfall into the area and revitalise the local economy by
welcoming people into the town. The plans have progressed and have
been presented to Council at various key stages however, at the
Council meeting in January, members were asked to look again as
several factors have emerged over the last 12 months which have
impacted the plans. One change is in the financing of the main site
as the plans did allow for residential and commercial units with an
agreed buy back model for the Council to retain full ownership as
the landlord and receive rental income. However, the government
changed the rules on borrowing so that local authorities could no
longer get lending for projects primarily for yield and this had
made this option unavailable. The Council recognised that the only
option was to sell the leasehold to Cityhold and would receive the
leasehold receipts. This outcome has the merit of reducing the
council’s overall borrowing requirement for the project.
Council approved the revised scope for the project in January which
removed the auditorium as an increase in costs and the reduced
ability for subsidising the project was no longer viable and the
future financial burden was unaffordable.
Councillor Williamson said that removing some of the residential and community elements made significant savings on the build costs. The capital requirements had fallen from £23.5 million to £15.5 million with a return on investment increased from £4.1 million to £6.9 million. The redesign of the scheme has included extra care housing on the scheme which would add £700k to the capital receipts.
Councillor Williamson said there had been a lot of comment around further consultation with stakeholders and the community therefore he amended the wording of recommendation 1 to:
“That Council approve that Officers proceed with the delivery of the Old River Lane Arts Centre development and the Old River Lane Main Scheme development, as set out in this report and on the basis of the financial viability demonstrated in the business case and that through the detailed design and planning stages public engagement and statutory consultation will be undertaken.”
Councillor Williamson proposed the two recommendations with the amendment to recommendation one. Councillor E Buckmaster seconded the recommendations and reserved his right to speak.
Councillor Goldspink felt the amended recommendation did not go far enough and therefore proposed an amendment to recommendation one and was seconded by Councillor Wilson and reserved his right to speak. The amendment was as follows:
“That Council approve that Officers proceed with the delivery of the Old River Lane Arts Centre development and the Old River Lane Main Scheme development as set out in this report and on the basis of the financial viability demonstrated in the business case, but only on condition that the final layout, sizes and function of the internal spaces within the Arts Centre will not be decided until full consultation has been held with local interest groups and with the residents of Bishop’s Stortford. This consultation would help to determine the potential usage and viability of the Centre.”
Councillor Goldspink thanked everyone who had been involved in the Old River Lane project for their hard work. She referred to the large number of public questions that had been submitted to the Council and said this displayed a large level of interest from residents who were willing to share ideas and contribute. She said what had become clear was that the public felt they had been kept in the dark over the years regarding the plans. She referred to page 15, paragraph 5 which mentioned the next steps in relation to consultation with residents and stakeholders and she welcomed this statement however, the report did not give any time frame for these consultations. Councillor Goldspink was concerned that it seemed the council would work up designs and then consult afterwards. She thought this was a serious mistake and it was important that the consultation should take place before design proposals are decided. She commended the amended to Council and asked members for their support.
Councillor E Buckmaster said he was not happy with the proposed amendment from Councillor Goldspink as it suggested that any consultation would only be held with residents of Bishop’s Stortford and any facilities in the District would be open to all residents. The recommendation proposed by Councillor Williamson proposes a much wider engagement.
Councillor Redfern said she did not feel the amendment proposed by Councillor Goldspink was limiting to just Bishop’s Stortford residents and the word ‘local’ could relate to the whole District.
Councillor Wilson addressed this point and said he did not think that if there was to be a consultation, that it would exclude people outside Bishop’s Stortford. He felt that the 2016 consultation was inadequate and many residents had expressed that they were not aware one took place. He said this amendment was not calling for a pause or a radical change in thinking with the project, but the Old River Lane project has to attract business and people to the town centre and many residents and community groups do not believe it would in its current form. He referred to the proposed reduction in the facility and losing the Church Hall and not replacing it with a performance space, all local groups have said that it would not meet their needs. Councillor Wilson said the number of questions submitted demonstrated local democracy in action and he said there was no point consulting after the event. He supported the amendment.
The amended recommendation, as proposed by Councillor Goldspink and seconded by Councillor Wilson, was put to the meeting and a vote taken. The motion was declared LOST.
Councillor Crystall asked for more information on what the statutory consultation would involve.
Councillor Wilson queried how much room there would be to change the size of the performance space if local groups said they required more seats.
Councillor Redfern said the Council were looking for a third time at this project because of a lack of money. She asked how the figures in the business plan were arrived at and felt the information in the confidential appendices should be made public as this was public money that was being spent. Councillor Redfern said that the council should release as much information as possible and felt that currently, as little as possible was being released.
Councillor Goldspink referred to the United Reform Church Hall and questioned whether the new arts centres would have no community space that could be hired.
Councillor Snowdon said he was disappointed that the Council could not push ahead with the original plans. He said he was excited by the scheme and was proud of the hard work that had been put into the vision. He said he had spent a lot of time with the Leader, Councillor Wyllie and Bishop’s Stortford Town Council to see, as a ward member, what could be done and the plan presented to the meeting achieves this. He felt that the Council needed to push on with the project for the best of the town and district and asked Councillor Haysey if she agreed that this was the best scheme the Council could get.
Councillor McAndrew said he was sympathetic to the concerns raised this evening by members of the public. He agreed with Councillor Williamson about being disappointed that the scheme had been reduced due to extraordinary circumstances. He highlighted Councillor E Buckmaster’s response to the public questions and said the facilities would provide something new for the town and looked forward to the consultation. Councillor McAndrew drew attention to the sustainability element of the project and said the Council was seeking maximum carbon efficiency and achieve carbon neutrality if possible. Green sustainability would be built into all aspects of the design and delivery with electric vehicle charging points in the car park and solar panels would be considered.
Councillor Bell said she was pleased with the discussion around the environmental sustainability of the building. She expressed disappointment about the situation the council was in now. She said that Bishop’s Stortford Amateur Dramatics group had been promised a 500 seat theatre which had now been taken away and the community space being utilised at the United Reform Church Hall that was not being replaced would be damaging for these groups. She urged the Council to look at alternative options such as developing community spaces on the top floor of the car park or reduce the cinema to three screens and have a studio theatre. She said the point of the development was to make money and the Church Hall currently makes £80k a year profit.
Councillor Haysey replied yes to Councillor Snowdon’s earlier question.
Councillor E Buckmaster said there is an opportunity for a cultural centre in Old River Lane and there was nothing else like it currently on offer in East Herts. This would offer an entirely different experience and create an ethos based on community need so programming events would have a greater reach as possible. The business case outlines the way forward that is achievable and affordable and he did not believe that people would want to stay home and watch streaming services after restrictions have eased. This project represents great value to residents of Bishop’s Stortford and it will draw people in to enhance the local economy. There was no merit in delay and the risk in not proceeding was greater than delaying. Councillor E Buckmaster supported the recommendations.
Councillor Williamson responded to Councillor Crystall’s question about the consultation and said it would be in line with any masterplanning process. In response to Councillor Wilson’s question on changing the design, he said after the results of the consultation they would with architects to create the best facilities possible. Responding to Councillor Redfern’s question, he explained that the financial details in the confidential appendices were sensitive and could affect any future procurement process. Councillor Williamson concluded that if the council agreed the recommendations, it would be the final endorsement for the scheme and allow the Council to move ahead with masterplanning and for the project team to work closely with contractors in the design stages and start the consultation process.
The recommendations, as proposed by Councillor Williamson and seconded by Councillor E Buckmaster, were put to the meeting and a vote taken. The motion was declared CARRIED.
RESOLVED - that (A) Council approve that Officers proceed with the delivery of the Old River Lane Arts Centre development and the Old River Lane Main Scheme development, as set out in this report and on the basis of the financial viability demonstrated in the business case and that through the detailed design and planning stages public engagement and statutory consultation will be undertaken; and
(B) That Council delegates to the Head of Strategic Property and Finance, in consultation with the Old River Lane Delivery Board operating in line with its Terms of Reference as contained at Appendix 1, the authority to make decisions relating to the delivery of the Old River Lane project.