£16m arts facility gets green light

PLANS for a landmark visual arts gallery in Colchester received their final approval yesterday - and work on the iconic £16.5 million building is set to begin within weeks.

By Roddy Ashworth

PLANS for a landmark visual arts gallery in Colchester received their final approval yesterday - and work on the iconic £16.5 million building is set to begin within weeks.

The news was greeted with delight from the scheme's supporters but also anger and despair from campaigners opposed to it.

The go-ahead came from GO-East, the Government Office for the East of England, which decided there was no reason for the planning application to be referred to ministry planning experts for further scrutiny.

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The Visual Arts Facility (VAF) will be situated at the top of East Street, taking up part of the land occupied by the town's former open-air bus station.

The controversial design of the building, its proposed location and the way it will be funded have caused divisions in Colchester since plans were first unveiled.

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The town's Liberal Democrat MP, Bob Russell, made a particular effort to scupper the project, bringing the subject of the VAF to the attention of Parliament on a number of occasions and lobbying organisations involved in its development.

However Conservative Bernard Jenkin, MP for North Essex, has spoken and written in favour of the scheme, saying it could bring 120,000 visitors per year to the borough and act as a catalyst for much-needed regeneration.

In February of this year the VAF was granted planning permission by Colchester Borough Council and yesterday it cleared the final hurdle with GO-East's decision, which was ratified by the Government's minister for Housing and Planning, Yvette Cooper.

Privately, some of the scheme's backers had expressed concern at the length of time GO-East was taking to make a ruling on whether or not the plans should be approved.

Now, however, work on the site will begin almost immediately and it is hoped that Firstsite, the public arts organisation currently housed in The Minories gallery, will be able to relocate in the new building - known as Firstsite:newsite - in autumn of next year.

Yesterday Kath Wood, director of Firstsite and one of the leading players in the VAF project, said: “We will start preparing the site within the next couple of weeks - it's very important we act quickly in terms of cost certainty.

“Despite the delay while it was at GO-East, we are confident it should come in on budget because of the way it was designed.

“We have already started thinking about the opening programmes, although we haven't been able to secure anything definite because everybody has been waiting for this decision.”

A spokesman for the East of England Development Agency, which is contributing £5million towards the building of the VAF, said: “Firstsite:newsite is set to become a magnet for arts and culture in the region, and will act as a catalyst for regeneration of the St Botolph's quarter of Colchester where the fantastic new facility will be located.”

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