Council tax pledge on arts centre plan

By Roddy AshworthRESIDENTS will not have to pay more council tax to fund the running of a proposed new visual arts centre, a council chief executive has pledged.

By Roddy Ashworth

RESIDENTS will not have to pay more council tax to fund the running of a proposed new visual arts centre, a council chief executive has pledged.

Start-up money given by Colchester Borough Council to help build the planned centre would total less than half of that expected to be handed over to build a new community stadium to house Colchester United.

The visual arts centre forms a key part of a regeneration scheme for the St Botolph's area of Colchester.

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If approved, the entire revamp would see the existing Queen Street bus station being relocated, the building of new magistrates' courts, the creation of a major new department store and a large retail and residential redevelopment.

The aim of the regeneration of the area is to attract at least 300,000 new visitors to Colchester every year to spend money in its shops, restaurants and other outlets.

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But some people fear the centre could become a financial millstone around council tax payers' necks, requiring hundreds of thousands of pounds of extra subsidy.

Colchester Borough Council chief executive Adrian Pritchard said that of the £1million revenue needed a year to keep the centre going, no extra local council tax would need to be levied.

He added £360,000 a year would come from the Arts Council of England and Essex County Council had agreed to pay an annual grant of £82,000, which would increase at the rate of inflation.

Although £200,000 would be paid a year by the borough council, £100,000 of that is currently already paid annually to Firstsite - which will run the centre - and £100,000 would be found from the council's existing £8m leisure budget.

It is budgeted that the remaining cash needed, about £358,000, would be raised by Firstsite from membership schemes, a proposed café, a shop, art sales, an arts cinema, publications, the hiring out of rooms and the hosting of conferences.

About £15m of outside funding has already been pledged to build the centre - designed by internationally renowned architect Rafael Vinoly - and the remaining £1.5m would be granted from the borough council's capital fund.

Mr Pritchard said this compared to £4m pledged to build the new community sports stadium at Cuckoo Farm and about £10m that was used to fund Leisure World.

Council leader John Jowers said: “There is a hard-nosed business case for the visual arts facility. I would not support it if I felt the burden would fall on the council tax payer.”

He added the proposed centre had been one of the main factors that had drawn in commercial interest in investing in the regeneration of the St Botolph's area, expected to attract about £250m of external funding.

“We have had to look at it as a business proposition - there is no way I would commit this town to something that would be a drain on its resources,” said Mr Jowers.

But Richard Bourne, whose shadow portfolio on the council includes regeneration, said: “Whether or not the local council tax rises or not, they are still going to have to cut other leisure services to raise the money for the visual arts facility.

“The figures mentioned are the absolute minimum if everything goes according to plan. Essentially, there is no such thing as free money. It still comes out of the council tax pot.

“If it was a question of a single capital spend that might be different. It is the long-term commitment we find difficult to accept.”

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