VAF scheme moves closer to reality

CONTROVERSIAL plans for a £16.5 million arts venue in an historic town were last night given the go-ahead by a council's planning committee.And now, unless proposals are blocked by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), the ambitious Visual Arts Facility (VAF) looks set to be built as part of the regeneration of the St Botolph's area of Colchester.

By Roddy Ashworth

CONTROVERSIAL plans for a £16.5 million arts venue in an historic town were last night given the go-ahead by a council's planning committee.

And now, unless proposals are blocked by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), the ambitious Visual Arts Facility (VAF) looks set to be built as part of the regeneration of the St Botolph's area of Colchester.

Colchester Borough Council's planning committee approved the plans by a majority of nine to one at a meeting in the town hall.


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The new building is designed to include a 200-seat auditorium and arts cinema, a suite of education facilities and to provide a permanent exhibition space for the University of Essex's Collection of Latin American Art (UECLAA) as well as touring art shows, conference facilities and a cafe.

It is hoped the VAF will bring millions of pounds of inward investment, but the scheme has been engulfed in controversy, not least because it will mean the relocation of the town's bus station to new site.

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Dee Evans, chair of the borough's strategic partnership, Colchester 2020, told the meeting: “This is a pivotal moment in the history of Colchester where we can move from being a historic market town to become a thriving regional centre.

“This will have a national and international profile. It is critical to all of our futures.”

George Kieffer, vice-chairman of the East of England Deveopment Agency - which is investing £5m into the building of the VAF - said: “I believe this project would add to the vitality of Colchester town centre by bringing this area into more productive use.

“It will enhance it. Cultural assets are important not only in regeneration, but also economic development.”

Chairman of the planning committee, Christopher Garnett, who moved to pass the application, said: “I feel this is an opportunity for Colchester to really have a building of incredible depth and excitement.

“What does please me personally is it is not an 'in your face' development, but it is certainly going to make a statement.”

However committee member Mary Blandon said she was not sure the VAF was of an appropriate design or in the right place, and voted against giving planning permission.

Earlier, Paula Whitney, of Friends of the Earth, told councillors: “What you're doing is wasting taxpayers'money on the wrong thing. Do you want our children to have a foolish VAF or a sustainable future?”

Timothy Oxton, of the Save our Bus Station campaign, said his organisation had collected more than 17,500 signatures on a petition calling for the East Hill transport facility to stay where it was.

“I am here to speak in favour of the VAF, not against it,” he added. “The majority of people who have signed this petition are in favour of the VAF.

“It would be a great asset to Colchester - but not on this site as proposed in the application.”

Because the council is the applicant, the decision now has to be ratified by the Government's Office in the East of England - GO EAST - and the ODPM before construction work can begin in April.

A total of 128 letters had been received objecting to the application, including one from local MP Bob Russell and others from various interest groups such as the Colchester Bus Users Group, The Ramblers' Association, Colchester Cycling Campaign and the Victorian Society.

But Government advisers the Commission of Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) welcomed the plans, saying they were “excited about the potential of the project, which holds out the promise of a fine piece of architecture which we would wish to see succeed.”

English Heritage, English Nature, Essex Wildlife Trust, the Environment Agency and the local Highway Authority did not object, subject to certain conditions being opposed.

However, neither Richard Bourne, the Labour group's spokesman on the VAF, nor Tim Young, the group leader, attended last night's meeting.

They had been advised that to do so could be in breach of the Colchester Borough Council adopted code of conduct for councillors, as they had already made their opposition to the VAF known and the planning committee had to determine the application on its own merits.

Committee member Andy Raison - another Labour member - left at the beginning of the meeting for the same reason.

n A potential “call in” of Essex County Council cabinet's decision to provide £2.5 million of funding for the VAF was abandoned by Labour members after they received assurances over the future of Colchester's bus station provision.

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