Fears over art gallery project
A NEW £15 million art gallery is in danger of becoming Colchester's equivalent of the Millennium Dome, some councillors have claimed.Tim Young, the Labour group leader at Colchester Borough Council, said the new Visual Arts Facility (VAF) planned for the town does not offer value for money, is likely to guzzle public funds and may be a millstone around the neck of the town hall for many years.
By Roddy Ashworth
A NEW £15 million art gallery is in danger of becoming Colchester's equivalent of the Millennium Dome, some councillors have claimed.
Tim Young, the Labour group leader at Colchester Borough Council, said the new Visual Arts Facility (VAF) planned for the town does not offer value for money, is likely to guzzle public funds and may be a millstone around the neck of the town hall for many years.
And Mr Young claimed that his view was supported by an independent consultants' report commissioned by the East of England Development Agency (EEDA).
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The Labour group on Colchester Borough Council obtained a copy of the report from EEDA after they claimed they were denied it by officers.
Now they have insisted it expresses real doubts about the viability of the multi-million pound arts facility.
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Mr Young said: “It's no wonder that the council did not want us to see this report.
“It seriously questions the viability of the VAF and queries whether it will have the desired effect in terms of jobs and investment.
“It also makes clear that any liability if the project is a failure will lie with the council and that it is likely to be a drain on public resources for many years to come.”
Richard Bourne, deputy leader of the Labour Group, said: “This is pretty devastating stuff couched in the language of consultants although the message is very clear - Colchester Borough Council is taking a huge gamble with public money over the success of this project.
“Money that could be directed to frontline services is being committed to what could well be the arts equivalent of a white elephant.
“This could be Colchester's own version of the Millennium Dome.”
But yesterday, John Jowers, Conservative leader of the council, insisted that the report in question was flawed and that after it was published its findings were amended by EEDA, which has pledged £5 million of investment into the VAF.
“The Labour group are telling only half the story - this is a bit like the Government's famous 45-minute claim,” he said.
“What happened was that EEDA commissioned a report on the financial viability of the VAF.
“It came back, and the figures were not good.
“But then we looked at them and realised the figures were specific to Colchester, and didn't take into account the regional impact.
“It also didn't gauge what the VAF would bring in terms of regeneration in the area, such as the magistrates' courts and the redevelopment of Vine Street and Queens Street.
“EEDA looked again and the figures then came out right.”
The controversial design of the new facility, which will rehouse Firstsite from the Minories, caused a stir among people in the town when it was unveiled last year.
The building, funded largely from national and regional organisations, is being designed by international architect Rafael Vinoly and forms part of the St Botolph's regeneration plan.
A spokesman for EEDA said: “We stand by the findings of the survey. The report actually makes reference to the fact there will be £100 million worth of investment generated by the VAF.
“EEDA sees it as being important to Colchester, Essex and the region. We are talking about a project that will be designed by one of the biggest names in architecture - a landmark building which will generate a huge number of visitors.
He added: “All of these findings have been endorsed by the Government and they accept it.”