Richard Cassidy Esq
East Herts Council
SG13 8EQ 12 March 2020
Dear Mr Cassidy
OLD RIVER LANE (ORL) BISHOP’S STORTFORD
- Thank you for your letter of 13 February in response to mine of 13 January, in which I asked you to confirm when the Council would be publishing and consulting on a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) for the ORL site, as required by Policy BISH8 I in the recently adopted District Plan. I am sorry to say that your response does not reply to any of the points raised in my letter.
- The Town Centre Planning Framework to which you refer is not an SPD and the extent of its coverage, rehearsal of options and level of detail would not make it suitable to be treated as one. Indeed, if it were to be treated as the SPD for ORL, it offers two development options, one covering only the southern part of the site with the second also covering the remainder; it makes no reference to the presence of an arts centre or multiplex cinema on the site; and it shows the multi storey car park north of Link Road in a different location from the one actually granted planning permission.
- The District Plan Policy says that the Framework will
‘form the basis of a Supplementary Planning Document which will be used to inform the masterplanning of the site’
This commitment was volunteered by the Council as the opening policy requirement for ORL in the District Plan. It was not imposed on the Council as a consequence of the Examination in Public of the Plan. An SPD carries with it a requirement for public consultation, a requirement for a Strategic Environmental Assessment, and in our view, a transport and traffic assessment covering the combined impact of both the proposals for the site and for the multi storey car park.
- The Town Centre Planning Framework meets none of these requirements. The consultation which took place covered the whole of the town centre, the development of ORL was only a small part of the overall consultation and, as mentioned above, there were no proposals to locate a new arts complex there. The impacts of the proposals on the road network were unknown. In case you have not previously seen it, the Bishop’s Stortford Civic Federation’s response at that time is attached. I understand that the number of respondents to this consultation who favoured a new arts centre would not have been enough to fill the auditorium at the Rhodes Centre, which scarcely seems to justify demand for a bigger one.
- The references in your letter to the Neighbourhood Plans have no relevance to consultation on the development proposals which the Council currently appears to have in mind. The Neighbourhood Plan which covers this site makes no reference to it at all, perhaps because, at the time of its adoption, the site was still in the ownership of Henderson Global Properties who had been granted permission for a development with two floors of underground parking and a large commercial component. The Neighbourhood Plan which covers the site of the Rhodes Centre made no specific reference to the Centre but did acknowledge a desire that either existing arts facilities should be improved or replaced by a larger facility. Like the Town Centre Planning Framework, consultation on this Neighbourhood Plan covered a large area and range of subjects. The responses on this one issue cannot be regarded as satisfying the need for publishing and consulting on an SPD for the ORL site.
- The SPD is meant to guide the masterplanning process. But your letter advises me that you have now appointed a developer to work on a project, the content of which has already been developed in private by the Council. It seems to us that, before wasting money on consultancy fees, the Council should comply with the requirement in the District Plan to publish and consult on an SPD for the site to enable the level of public support and impact on the road network and other infrastructure to be properly assessed.
- My letter 13 January also asked for the business case for the proposals to be published. The developers you have appointed will presumably be able to prepare a business case for the site, but will have no interest in its impact on competing facilities in the town. But the Council does have a role in ensuring the prosperity of the town as a whole and not just the bits of it in which it has acquired a property interest. So here are some of the concerns we have about the proposals and their possible impacts, to the extent that they have been released into the public domain.
Demand for a larger theatre. As mentioned above, the numbers responding to surveys do not indicate a demand to fill a larger auditorium than the Rhodes Centre. With the Saffron Hall to the north of us providing a world class concert hall, and the Harlow Playhouse to the south of us providing a larger theatre, we doubt whether a similar sized performance space in Bishop’s Stortford will be anything other than a financial liability. We are also concerned that the town would be quite unable to support two venues and that the closure of the Rhodes Centre would inevitably follow. Since it supports the Museum both physically and financially, we are concerned too about the potentially adverse effect on the long term future of the museum.
Demand for a multiplex cinema. We already have a multiplex in Bishop’s Stortford with the Rhodes Centre showing arts films and filmed performances of national theatre and opera productions. Provision of a new facility will surely lead to the demise of the existing ones.
Retail facilities. Our town centre has held up remarkably well in the face of the existing downturn, but shopping habits have experienced a sea change with many national brands struggling or falling into insolvency as a result of the move to on line shopping. Providing more shopping space at ORL will simply undermine the main retail offer further south in the town. Investors are moving out of commercial property not into it. The fact that our most modern shopping centre, Jackson Square has never been fully let, is a powerful indication of an underlying lack of demand.
New public boulevard. While this was one of the more attractive features of the Town Centre Planning Framework its creation does rely on providing a new access point to the Waitrose car park from the north off Link Road. We understand that Waitrose have important commercial reasons for not surrendering the freehold of that part of the site and that it would in any case cause unacceptable traffic congestion. Since it is the main retail magnet in the town centre, any action by the Council to undermine the commercial health of Waitrose could have a far wider adverse impact on decisions about where to shop.
- In our view all of these point to a smaller development on that part of the ORL site which has previously been developed. This in turn would render the proposed multi storey car park redundant. Although you have said that this is a separate project, the Council has behaved disingenuously in treating it as such. The sole purpose of it is to release the ORL site for development, and with no, or less development, it would become unnecessary. After all, another part of the Council is supposed to be encouraging modal shift away from cars. Providing more car parking, even with a larger population, is not going to help that to happen. So before sending in the bulldozers, it really is incumbent on the Council to demonstrate that it understands the consequences of what it wants to do and that its plans command the support of the people who live here.