Government assessors back arts venue

A COUNCIL leader has admitted that the publicity surrounding a proposed £16.5 million arts venue has been “seriously mishandled” by organisations involved with the project.

By Roddy Ashworth

A COUNCIL leader has admitted that the publicity surrounding a proposed £16.5 million arts venue has been “seriously mishandled” by organisations involved with the project.

John Jowers made his comments after the plans to create a visual arts facility (VAF) in Colchester were given a “green light” by independent Government assessors.

The team of analysts examined proposals for the controversial landmark building, which will be built on the site of the town's Queen Street bus station, and concluded the project was on target to be a success.

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However they urged Colchester Borough Council to address public concerns about the provision of a new bus station “without delay”.

More than 15,000 people have signed a petition calling for the bus station to stay where it is and there has been much criticism from the council about plans for both an interim facility and its eventual replacement.

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The assessors also said that Firstsite - the arts organisation set to occupy and run the new building - should “urgently” launch a marketing exercise to explain to local residents the full benefits of the proposed facility.

Yesterday Mr Jowers said that he agreed there had been problems with the way the concept of the VAF had been projected in the media.

“This is such a good thing for Colchester, in so many ways, that it was almost assumed that it would be universally welcomed.

“There has also been some confusion about who should be promoting it. However, the problem is that we haven't really got across to people what the real benefits of the VAF are.

“It was, initially, seriously mishandled, but the partnership that is steering the project is now urgently addressing the matter.”

A spokesman for Firstsite said: “All the partners of this project have recognised that more needs to be done to tell people about the building. In part this has awaited planning consent which is presently outstanding.

“For its own part, Firstsite has worked hard to communicate the tremendous benefits this scheme will bring to Colchester, but can only comment about this one element of the St Botolph's masterplan.

“Firstsite looks forward to other partners doing more to promote the benefits of the wider scheme, especially the council's plans to move the bus station - a topic that Firstsite cannot comment on.”

The VAF, designed by world-renowned architect Rafael Vinoly, is being financed for the most part by external funding bodies, including the Arts Council of England and the East of England Development Agency (EEDA).

It forms part of the proposed regeneration of the run-down St Botolph's area of town, which also includes a new shopping centre, new magistrates' courts and the creation of a heritage route leading from the Mersea Road roundabout to the Norman Castle.

Colchester Borough Council has stated that although the VAF will require a degree of annual subsidy, the level of council tax in the town will not be affected.

However Labour councillor Richard Bourne said he did not believe that publicity was the problem with the project.

“The issue is not to do with publicity, it is to do with the fact that the VAF is itself unpopular,” he said.

“Had we been able to hold a referendum on whether or not people wanted the VAF, we would know what people really want.

“Fundamentally, I am not surprised the actual construction project of the VAF has received a green light.

“Because of the huge fuss the Labour group made, the council got in external people to manage the project properly.

“The basic issue still remains about the value for money compared to the original proposal.

“We need to get some handle on who is taking what financial risks and who is paying for what.”

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