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Lib Dems demand better for derelict Shire Hall

June 22, 2019 1:40 PM

Shire Hall, Tindal Square, Chelmsford (Chelmsford Liberal Democrats)Cllr Mike Mackrory has demanded answers as to why the ECC owned, historic, listed Shire Hall building remains empty after eight years.

Mike described the interior as having been in a 'shocking state' the last time he visited a few years ago, and that 'it can only have deteriorated since then'.

Mike also asked why a suggestion from an interested private individual that part of the building be used for an Art Gallery has been rejected. The "well placed individual" only approached ECC with a plans for an art gallery in the past two months.

Reply from the Leader of the Council.

'I am surprised by this question from the Member as he, along with all Members - particularly those on the Chelmsford Member Panel - have received updates from officers on progress with Shire Hall and will be aware of the scale of activity that has been required since the Magistrates' Court vacated in 2012.

The building initially required urgent repairs to the external fabric following an incident of falling masonry. Subsequently it was necessary to undertake significant survey and repair work in order to ensure that the building was safe, and that information on the potential of the building could be gained to inform the future strategy. Thereafter, market testing was undertaken to identify proposals and gauge the appetite for possible future uses.

The member references the 8 years since the building was closed. As I'm sure he knows, it is approximately 250 years old. It is a Listed Building and development has significant constraints: it would be inappropriate for ECC, stakeholders and bidders to proceed with any commitments without thorough due diligence. In addition, there has been significant public interest and engagement, all of which has taken time to address.

A contract with Aquila to purchase Shire Hall for a mixed-use development has been reached after significant marketing, engagement, and legal work. We are now within the timescale set out in the contract for Aquila to develop their scheme and secure planning permission which runs until September 2019.

With reference to the comment about the interior "rapidly deteriorating", officers advise that the interior is not "rapidly deteriorating" other than some issues with superficial cleanliness. Low-level heating is being maintained to prevent damage from damp and mould during periods where external temperature fall below 12 degrees Celsius.

Finally, in regard to the Art Gallery proposal: The proposal was an unsolicited intervention which also came with suggestions to dramatically alter the contract arrangement with Aquila, would have lost the current £1m receipt to ECC, and would have re-introduced considerable financial risk to the council.

There is no stated ambition for ECC to create or support an art gallery in Chelmsford that would align with this proposal. This intervention, and the lack of availability of key planning staff at Chelmsford City Council, has resulted in a significant slowdown in progress which has needed to be rectified. The Cabinet Member for Finance, together with property officers, have been assured that the proposed development scheme can go ahead as proposed within the contract - meaning without the gallery - and Aquila have been advised accordingly.

Given the intervention on the art gallery and the lack of historic planning resource at Chelmsford City Council it is likely that the contract extension period set out for securing planning consent will be invoked. I therefore look forward to providing a further update to all Members once planning consent has been received and the next stage of the process begins.'