Art gallery delayed again

COLCHESTER'S controversial new art gallery faces ever-more spiralling costs and is now not likely to open its doors to the public until May 2009 - almost two years later than planned.

Roddy Ashworth

COLCHESTER'S controversial new art gallery faces ever-more spiralling costs and is now not likely to open its doors to the public until May 2009 - almost two years later than planned.

Senior members of the borough council's new administration - who took control of the town hall in last month's local elections - have been told by officers that the project faces yet more setbacks and is expected to soar at least another £1.5 million over its already inflated budget.

But they have also been told that to pull the plug on the unfinished Visual Arts Facility (VAF), on the site of the former bus station near Queen Street, would cost the council around £14 million.

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This is because the borough would have to pay back grants made by outside bodies - such as the Arts Council of England and the East of England Development Agency - to build the bespoke gallery, which was originally budgeted at £16.5 million.

Last year the council pledged not to ask for more money from its external partners when it was granted an extra £2million by them after an earlier funding black hole was identified.

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But yesterday the new leader of the council, Anne Turrell, said that following the new administration's initial review of the VAF's finances the borough would once again turn to the outside funders in the hope of obtaining more cash.

Ms Turrell said: “Our investigations show that there is a further funding shortfall over and above what we previously understood to be the case. It is now clear that the scheme will be over time and over budget.

“In light of this situation, we shall be returning to the funding partners for further discussions.

“The new administration is committed to completing this project in the shortest timescale and with the least impact on council taxpayers.

“In doing so the council is committed to moving forward and is not looking to repay the £14million that has already been invested.”

Problems facing the project include glazing the building, and in particular its entrance, which is designed to operate like a huge glass garage door to allow in large installations.

Deputy council leader, Martin Hunt, who has been appointed lead cabinet member for the remainder of the project, said: “Our first aim is to get the remaining work underway which involves mainly work on the large amount of glass on the outside of this unique structure.

“But we have not forgotten the importance of finding out how and why these continual problems with funding have happened and the Cabinet is proceeding with a thorough and detailed internal investigation into how this project arrived at this point.

“Sadly, I can no longer give you an accurate timescale for the completion of this project and the revised opening date of Autumn 2008 is now subject to further slippage.

“Clearly if the council has to go it alone with finding the remaining funding needed, the project will take considerably longer than it will if our funding partners are yet again willing to help us complete the project.”

Mr Hunt added: “It is in all our interests that this project is finished as quickly as possible so that it can play its full part in the regeneration of this part of Colchester.”

The VAF is intended to house local arts organisation firstsite, which recently left the nearby Minories Gallery on the town's High Street.

It was designed as a one-off, landmark building by world-renowned architect Rafael Vinoly.

A briefing document issued by firstsite in January 2005 said the project to build the gallery would cost £16.5 million and gave a planned opening date of Autumn 2007.

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