Art venue could soar £3.5m over budget

AN ALREADY over-budget major arts project in Essex could end up costing an extra £3.5 million to complete, the EADT can reveal.

Roddy Ashworth

AN ALREADY over-budget major arts project in Essex could end up costing an extra £3.5 million to complete, the EADT can reveal.

The unfinished firstsite:newsite gallery in Colchester - originally known as the Visual Arts Facility, or VAF- has been beset by problems during its construction and has already missed its scheduled completion date by more than sixth months.

Last year Colchester Borough Council, which is managing the building phase of the scheme, was forced to turn to the project's original funding bodies for extra cash after it identified a £2 million funding shortfall.

Now, however, difficulties with the glazing of the landmark building -including the huge glass “door” at the front of the structure, as well as other costs, such as landscaping - have led to council bosses being warned that the project as it stands is likely to require an additional cash injection of anything from £1.7 million up to, in the worst case scenario, £3.5 million.

This means that the gallery - previously budgeted at £17.8 million - could eventually cost £21.3 million.

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In 2005, a firstsite:newsite briefing document set the opening date at autumn 2007. However, it is now not expected to open until autumn this year at the earliest.

When Colchester Borough Council previously requested the extra funding from its project partners - including the Arts Council, the East of England Development Agency and Essex County Council - it pledged that if the scheme went any further over-budget it would find the cash itself.

Anne Turrell, who was elected Liberal Democrat leader of the council at a meeting yesterday, was not available for comment last night.

But deputy leader Martin Hunt said: “As far as we were aware, the project was still on target, but I now understand there are problems, and the new leadership of the council - which only took over today -will be asking for an urgent report from the chief executive on whatever problems there are.”

Robert Davidson, Conservative leader of the council until yesterday's meeting, defended the previous administration's handling of the firstsite:newsite projects.

He stressed that the plans had received two “green lights” in reports following scrutiny by independent consultants.

“At all stages of this project the council has minimised the risk and worked cautiously by getting expert advice, double and triple checking the budgets and the ability to keep to the contract.

“Our partners believed it was spot on and we had reports back to the cabinet saying it was being managed well. We relied on experts like everybody does.”