Town could become

By Andrew ClarkeArts EditorARTS groups are concerned Ipswich could be left as a cultural desert following a major shake-up of its entertainment venues.

By Andrew Clarke

Arts Editor

ARTS groups are concerned Ipswich could be left as a cultural desert following a major shake-up of its entertainment venues.

Ipswich Borough Council has unveiled four options that could reshape the arts and leisure landscape in the town during the next couple of years.

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Among the venues whose futures are being assessed are the Ipswich Film Theatre, the Regent Theatre, the Corn Exchange and the New Wolsey Theatre.

Under the proposals, the Regent Theatre could be mothballed or the Corn Exchange sold off and the Town Hall put to alternative use.

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The New Wolsey Theatre also needs funding for much-needed maintenance work to enable it to comply with disabled access legislation.

But John Mowles, the lead councillor for leisure on Ipswich Borough Council, said the fate of the Ipswich Film Theatre and the Corn Exchange were not inter-linked.

He added the council was actively exploring the possibility of moving the Ipswich Film Theatre to a new site, regardless of what eventually happened to the Corn Exchange.

Ipswich Arts Association chairman, Professor Chris Green, said many local arts societies would collapse if the Corn Exchange was sold off.

He added: “The Corn Exchange is the only middle-sized venue in the area. If you look around, there is no obvious alternative space.

“The Regent is too large, the Spa Pavilion at Felixstowe is again too big and the acoustics are poor, the New Wolsey is invariably busy, The Royal Hospital School is a turn-off to audiences because it is too difficult to get to and Snape Maltings is simply too expensive.

“We have set up a forum of user groups and the message that has come back is that if the Corn Exchange closes, then there is nowhere for them to go.

“Many have said that their programmes would be severely curtailed and some have said that unless an affordable alternative venue were found quickly, then they would be forced to close.”

Mr Mowles said there would be a lengthy consultation period with user groups, the public and other interested organisations over the options.

“There will be sit-down meetings with various interested parties like the Ipswich Arts Association, there will be opportunities to talk with other user groups as well as some kind of forum with the general public,” he added.

Mr Mowles said the official deadline for comments would be the end of September, but unofficially they would continue to take comments until the matter went to full council at the end of October.

But Prof Green felt the brevity of the consultation period was a matter of concern.

“It's no good having a consultation period that runs over the summer months because many organisations either do not meet or because of holidays will have trouble contacting their members to formulate a properly-considered response,” he said.

“I believe that in order to get a proper dialogue going, then the deadline should be extended into November.

“This is a matter of great concern for a great number of people and the various options need to be explored thoroughly and not rushed through in a cynical way.”

Neil Salmon, acting chairman of the Ipswich Film Theatre Advisory Board, said it was imperative that it continued either at the Corn Exchange or at another venue.

“It is the only place in Suffolk or Essex where you can see many foreign language films, re-releases of classics or non-mainstream movies. It is vitally important that it continues full-time operation somewhere,” he added.

“A town like Ipswich with a catchment area population of 300,000 deserves a cinema like the Ipswich Film Theatre - particularly if it has aspirations of becoming a university town.”

Andrew Burton, spokesman for the New Wolsey Theatre, said it was encouraged that under the options the playhouse would receive money to carry out essential remedial work to the building.

“Sadly, we have inherited a building that has failed to keep pace with the modern world,” he added.

“Under the terms of the Disabled Discrimination Act, we are required to provide access for disabled performers as well as disabled audiences.

“It is a large and potentially-expensive job as the backstage area is a rabbit warren of corridors and is on various levels with many different sets of steps and stairs to be negotiated.”

Mr Burton said a serious design problem with the roof had become apparent with two major leaks continuing to make life a misery for staff.

Although each of the four options recommended that the New Wolsey Theatre be given the money to carry out this work, Mr Mowles said that did not mean they were guaranteed the cash as the council could modify any of the proposals.

Judy Terry, shadow spokeswoman for leisure, said the Conservatives had rejected all four options.

She added they were developing what she described as entrepreneurial counter-proposals that would ensure the long-term safety of all the town's venues, while relieving the council tax payer of much of the burden of financing these expensive leisure areas.

These proposals are due to be published within the next two weeks.

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