Arts centre plan funding review

By Roddy AshworthA CONTROVERSIAL plan for a £16.5million visual arts centre will once again come under the spotlight after officials agreed a decision on its funding could be formally reviewed.

By Roddy Ashworth

A CONTROVERSIAL plan for a £16.5million visual arts centre will once again come under the spotlight after officials agreed a decision on its funding could be formally reviewed.

Labour opponents of the proposed Visual Arts Facility (VAF) in Colchester at first met with resistance from borough council officers when they wanted to "call in" a cabinet decision to release £1.5million of funding for the centre.

But after an exchange of e-mails, the council's monitoring officer Andrew Weavers changed his view and agreed the matter could, after all, be debated by its strategic overview and scrutiny panel.

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Now the ruling cabinet's decision is likely to be discussed at a meeting of the watchdog panel tomorrow.

The Conservative cabinet agreed on March 23 that the council's £1.5m investment in the proposed arts centre should be confirmed, a detailed planning application for the building should be submitted and initial contractors should be appointed.

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But the following day Labour borough councillors received documents relating to the visual arts centre from the council that they had requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

Tim Young, leader of the council's Labour group, said these documents had prompted five Labour councillors to ask for the decision to be "called in" for scrutiny.

"The enormous trouble we have had in getting information from the council makes us ever more sceptical about the viability of the VAF," he added.

"It does not seem to offer value for money and it has never been demonstrated that there is public support for it in Colchester. We can see it being propped up by council tax payers for years to come and we are pretty certain that is not what the people of Colchester want.

"We will be recommending that the project should not go ahead without firm demonstration of economic viability and public support."

Ken Jones, chairman of the strategic overview and scrutiny panel said he hoped the matter could be debated when it met tomorrow.

"However, this is not a second decision-making process. The panel can recommend that the cabinet takes a different view from the one it has taken, but the cabinet is under no compulsion to do so. However, the cabinet decision cannot progress until the meeting of the panel," he added.

Robert Davidson, the Colchester cabinet member with responsibility for regeneration, said: "The cabinet has considered the business plan and the risk management, which has been done by top consultants recommended by the Arts Council and others.

"Although we have gone one step further down the road to initiating the building process, we have not actually pressed the button to say 'Go'. We are not at the stage of no return.

"We welcome the substantial contribution from other partners – including £5m from the Arts Council and £5m from the East of England Regional Assembly – and we are extremely lucky Colchester has the opportunity to be the home of a prestigious regional arts facility."

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