Fear art centre may prove white elephant

ONE of the main supporters of Colchester's over-budget and behind-schedule new art gallery has admitted it could end up as a “white elephant” if local people decide to boycott it.

Roddy Ashworth

ONE of the main supporters of Colchester's over-budget and behind-schedule new art gallery has admitted it could end up as a “white elephant” if local people decide to boycott it.

Jeremy Lucas, Essex County Council cabinet member for heritage, culture and the arts, made his comments after an unannounced visit to the site of the unfinished building, which is so far �9million over its original �16.5 million budget and is currently set to open more than two years later than planned.

Mr Lucas was at the controversial Visual Arts Facility (VAF) yesterday alongside fellow councillor Kevin Bentley and council leader Lord Hanningfield, who was conducting a tour of regeneration projects in the east of the county.

Essex County Council has already ploughed �3million into the VAF project, which has faced a number of expensive problems and delays since construction work began in 2006.

Mr Lucas said that he believed the landmark contemporary building - designed by world-renowned architect Rafael Vinoly - would act as a catalyst for regeneration in Colchester, north Essex and the eastern regional as a whole.

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“Every time I go there I realise what a spectacular building it will be, and how much space there will be for the people and communities of Colchester,” he said.

“It is disappointing that not much work has happened recently but I do believe it will be an enormous asset.

“I don't think it will be a white elephant. But if it does become a white elephant, it will be because people decide to boycott it as a snub.

“I hope that's not the way of the people of Colchester.”

Yesterday, critics of the VAF seized on Mr Lucas' remarks as his first admission the project could end in failure.

Labour Colchester Borough Councillor Kim Naish, who has consistently derided the scheme, said the vast majority of people living in Colchester had been hostile to the VAF from its very inception.

“People in Colchester really don't want this at all, and they never did. They wanted a referendum to stop it, but they were never allowed one,” he said.

“And since it started costing so much more they see it as an insult more than anything else.

“It won't be a question of boycotting it. People are sick of the sight of it before it has even opened.

“I drive a taxi, and at least once a day a passenger will start criticising the VAF - and they don't know I'm a councillor.

“It has been a complete waste of time and money, and if I had my way we would not spend a single penny more on it.”

Colchester MP Bob Russell said: “County Councillor Lucas' insulting comment about the people of Colchester shows just how out of touch he is.

“Added to the huge cost to the public purse of building the VAF, we need to add the annual subsidy of �600,000, which will mean a burden for council taxpayers for at least the next 50 years on current projections.”