LETTER: Concern for hall

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I write to express my grave concern that the town and district councils are planning to demolish and not replace the Martlets Hall.

While this does not affect the Burgess Hill Symphony Orchestra directly, it will be a major blow to the cultural life of our town, to which we contribute.

The agenda for the 8 September MSDC planning meeting asks the cabinet to approve the offer made by New River Retail for the redevelopment of the Martlets Shopping Centre, which says ‘the considerable infrastructure requirements and challenging viability mean that … the Martlets Hall cannot be re-provided’.

The background document produced by Max Associates (sports and leisure consultants), and tabled for next week’s Mid Sussex planning meeting, cites the Arts Council planning document museums, libraries, archives, arts provisions and new development which specifies a benchmark for provision of ‘arts buildings’ of 45sq.m per 1,000 population. In this document, the Arts Council defines ‘arts buildings’ as:

Galleries - Multi use arts venues and theatres; and Production, rehearsal and education space for the arts. Max Associates appear to define ‘arts buildings’ as any venue which is available for hire, and on that basis they conveniently conclude that there is sufficient supply, both now and up to 2031, when it estimates that Burgess Hill will have a population of 45,000. The Arts Council document states ‘each area studied will have its own mix of arts spaces, and precise needs will depend on the outcome of local assessments and audits’.

In the case of Burgess Hill, we are already poorly served. We have no galleries, no museum, no ‘education space for the arts’, and our one publicly-owned multi-use ‘arts venue and theatre’ is about to be demolished and not replaced if the council gets its way. So I would argue that we are looking at a future in which we have no ‘arts buildings’ which are available for the cultural life of Burgess Hill. This ‘provision’ clearly falls short of the Arts Council guidelines (which cite a benchmark figure of 28sq.m per 1,000 for museum provision, in addition to the 45sq.m for arts buildings).

The Max Associates report is useful in identifying the level of need for meeting rooms and suggesting potential alternatives, but this exercise totally misses the point as regards cultural provision. As the report notes, theatre performances need theatre facilities, and those have to be designed and built into a purpose-built venue. This is something only a council can do.

The Burgess Hill Town Wide Strategy includes in its vision and aspirations section: ‘new and improved community and cultural facilities’. This wording also forms part of the District Plan. Neither the town nor the district council has made any statement to suggest that they plan to implement this aspect of the plan by providing a replacement for the Martlets Hall. Instead, they have commissioned a report which justifies not doing so. The previous Town Plan for Burgess Hill town centre included a new 500-seat multi-purpose venue for theatre, live music of all types, conferences and meetings. Such a new, larger, venue would allow the continuation and expansion of the professional live events which we have enjoyed at the Martlets. It would enable the town pantomime to continue. (This is an event which as Max Associates concedes attracts an annual audience of 3,000.)

The Max Associates report says that MSDC-organised events will cease when the Martlets is no longer available. There will no longer be a venue for independently-promoted events such as the Fairtrade Festival. The Theatre Club has written to the council to explain in detail why it is impossible for the town’s Pantomime to be staged elsewhere in Burgess Hill.

The basis on which Burgess Hill has accepted the majority of the new housing required by Mid Sussex is that the town will get infrastructure benefits, paid for by developer contributions. I would expect the town council to be seizing this opportunity, and outlining how it plans to improve the lives of everyone in Burgess Hill by the provision of new facilities. For most residents, a replacement for the Martlets Hall would be the first item on that list, as evidenced by the reported 3,500 (and now nearly 5,000) signatories to the Save the Martlets Hall petition. The council has the means to provide a replacement, through developer contributions, and a place to do it – in the so-called Cultural Quarter behind Cyprus Road. Instead, we hear nothing from the Council. Burgess Hill deserves, and expects, better from its elected representatives.

New River’s commercial judgement is that the Martlets cannot form part of plans for the redevelopment of their part of the town centre. Fair enough. That is a commercial decision by an unelected developer. However, the councils appear to have made their own flawed political decision, pretending it is driven by economic necessity. This will deprive Burgess Hill of its primary cultural venue.

Richard Light

Chair, Burgess Hill Symphony Orchestra, Midfields Walk, Burgess Hill

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