Colchester VAF £6m over budget

COLCHESTER'S controversial new art gallery is now a staggering £6million over-budget and is set to cost over a third more than its previously revised £17.8m price tag.

Roddy Ashworth

COLCHESTER'S controversial new art gallery is now a staggering £6million over-budget and is set to cost over a third more than its previously revised £17.8million price tag, the EADT can reveal.

And yesterday Martin Hunt, the man who recently took over the beleaguered project, admitted that it would be impossible for Colchester Borough Council to complete the building on its own “without shutting down just about everything else we do”.

The EADT can today reveal that the true cost of completing the Visual Arts Facility (VAF) both inside and out is now officially estimated at around £23.8million.

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Yesterday Colchester Borough Council ended a protracted financial dispute with construction firm Banner Holdings Limited and reached an agreement that will lead to the exterior of the half-finished building - on which work stopped more than six months ago - being completed.

But the soaring price of materials, the cost of the delay, inflated professional fees and the cash needed to fit out the inside of the gallery have sent the final budget spiralling.

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Last November the council announced it had received extra cash from partner funders - including Arts Council England, the East of England Development Agency and Essex County Council - after costs for the VAF rose from the initial cost of £16.5million to £17.8million.

Yesterday Mr Hunt, deputy leader of the council and cabinet member with responsibility for the VAF, said: “I am unable, for reasons of commercial confidentiality, to confirm the £6million figure one way or the other.

“However, it is fair to say that this project was certainly much, much further over budget than we had thought when the new administration took over the council in May and I became responsible for the VAF.

“The council could not complete this project on its own without shutting down just about everything else we do.

“The work being done by Banner can now take place within the budget originally set aside for the whole project, apart from an additional payment we have agreed to of less than £50,000. That will make the building water-tight and airtight.

“After that we need to return to the funding bodies and re-negotiate with them because, as a council, we cannot afford to finish this on our own.”

Mr Hunt said that although the council had previously pledged it would not ask for more cash from its partner funders, he believed they would be willing to provide additional financial help to complete the VAF, which is planned to become the home of visual arts organisation firstsite.

“The problem with these big capital projects is that they always seem to go over-budget. If people cast their minds back to when Leisure World built in Colchester that went £1million over budget - and given that was 15 or so years ago, it's probably a comparable sort of amount in today's terms.

“The one thing all the funders agree on is that this project must be finished. We all also agree that it will be successful. I honestly think that by the time Banner have finished the exterior of the building next May, we will have the funding in place.”A spokeswoman for Essex County Council said: “Essex County Council remains committed to working with its partners to ensure this world class project is completed.

“The partnership has undoubtedly been affected by tough economic conditions in the construction industry but firstsite will act as the catalyst for the urban and cultural regeneration of Colchester, spearheading the cultural programme of Essex and the region, boosting tourism and generating significant inward investment and jobs for the county.

“Essex County Council is actively engaged in discussions with all the partner organisations behind this cutting edge development and we cannot comment on future funding until those discussions are complete.”

A spokeswoman for Arts Council England and EEDA said: “Arts Council England and funding partners for firstsite remain committed to seeing this landmark project through to completion.

“All the partners recognise that the iconic building is crucial to the planned redevelopment of the surrounding St Botolph's Quarter, which is helping to create an even better Colchester.

“This world-class project will bring millions of pounds of investment to the borough.”

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