Controversial VAF 'could be demolished'

COLCHESTER'S over-budget and behind-schedule new art gallery could end up being demolished before the building is even completed, the East Anglian Daily Times can reveal.

Roddy Ashworth

COLCHESTER'S over-budget and behind-schedule new art gallery could end up being demolished before the building is even completed, the East Anglian Daily Times can reveal.

The option of dismantling the controversial Visual Arts Facility (VAF) is one of three the local council is considering putting to the people of the town if a crunch meeting next Tuesday does not yield a final agreement on the ongoing costs of the project.

Work on the construction phase of the VAF has all but stalled at its town centre site and senior councillors have been warned that completion costs could spiral even further over-budget than had been previously predicted - well beyond the “worst-case scenario” of £3.8 million reported by the EADT in May.

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And if Tuesday's meeting - which will involve representatives of the council and construction firm Banner Holdings Limited - fails to resolve the current stalemate councillors plan to hold a public consultation on what to do next.

The three options put to the residents of Colchester would be:

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n to continue funding the project to completion, although this could end up costing millions more than anticipated

n to “mothball” the building until other funding sources can be identified or new contractors appointed. The existing structure would need to be expensively shored up as it is currently open to the elements and in danger of deteriorating.

n to demolish the building. At the moment the council considers this to be the most expensive option, as it would involve paying back grants of around £14million to the project's main funders, including the Arts Council and the East of England Development Agency.

The VAF project has roused heated local controversy from its inception, with many people in the town objecting to its both its location - on the town's former bus station - and its cost.

Yesterday Martin Hunt, deputy leader of Colchester Borough Council with responsibility for the VAF, said that when elected he had promised to be open about the project and if Tuesday's meeting failed to provide a solution he would share his dilemmas with the public.

Although most of the initial cash for the project came from external funders, the council is currently liable for all additional completion costs of the VAF, which was designed by internationally-renowned architect Rafael Vinoly.

Originally the budget for the building was £16.5million, although this increased to £17.8million last year. In May it emerged the project was going to cost at least £1.5million more and this projection has since risen considerably.

Mr Hunt said: “My belief is that right the way along I have promised to involved the people of Colchester in whatever decision I make, and I am determined that will remain the case.

“This has got to be sorted. The thing is wet, it's going mouldy, there are birds living in there and there have even been needles found in it, would you believe.

“If no decision can be reached on Tuesday, I shall be asking the people of Colchester what they want us to do. It can't go on like this.”

Some of the difficulties facing the council in its negotiations include the fact that there was never a guaranteed final cost for the building agreed with Banner.

The company has faced its own problems on site, including difficulties with the shape of the building's entrance and the loss of specialist engineers Eiffel from the project.

Nobody from Banner Holdings Limited was available for comment.

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