Loan to fund Burgess Hill arts venue a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’

Disappointed town councillors after the public vote was revealed today
Disappointed town councillors after the public vote was revealed today

“This is democracy. People have spoken and we have to accept that,” said Pru Moore, leader of Burgess Hill Town Council.

She and other councillors expressed their dismay after finding out residents had voted against a funding plan for a £6.9million arts venue to be built in the town.

An artist's impression of the venue. Picture supplied by Colliers International

An artist's impression of the venue. Picture supplied by Colliers International

The public vote, which was by a majority of 13 votes, was revealed at a press conference today.

Over the past month, the council asked residents if they supported funding the new venue, which was dependent on securing a £5million loan, which would be paid back by increasing council tax to just over £1 for two years.

The community and performance venue, part of Burgess Hill’s Cultural Quarter, was to replace Martlets Hall, which is due to be demolished as part of the £65million town centre regeneration project, by developer NewRiver.

That will see the town gain a ten-screen cinema, hotel, 142 flats, a new library, as well as extra retail and restaurant units. But the developer did not include a replacement for the Martlets Hall, which it did not deem viable.

I am now worried about the town – we are having our cultural hearts ripped out.

Member of the steering group Matt Roberts

Mrs Moore said the loan was a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. “The door has closed on that window of opportunity, which is sad, because opportunities like this don’t come too often,” she said.

“The people of Burgess Hill have said they don’t want to pay for this. And they don’t want to wait for the venue, which would have been delivered in 2021.

“This is not a positive result for the people who worked so hard for this. People have put in a huge amount of time and I thank you so much as you don’t get paid for this. I feel your disappointment, I am so, so sorry.”

The council received 2,286 votes – with 1,134 in favour and 1,147 against, and five with no answer given. There were 195 spoilt votes.

Picture supplied by Colliers International

Picture supplied by Colliers International

Eight per cent of the town voted which Mrs Moore said was ‘disappointing’. She added: “I think we did enough. We respond to what our residents want, and that is why we put this venue forward.”

Councillor Anne Jones said there will be ‘a lot of disappointed people in Burgess Hill’, and added: “One pound a month was not a lot of money. My heart goes out to the people who put so much time into this.”

Councillor Richard Cherry said all the council could do was ‘dry their tears and move on’.

The council will now debate on what is next after the decision. It has not ruled out the venue, but confirmed it will not be delivered by 2021.

Picture supplied by Colliers International

Picture supplied by Colliers International

Mrs Moore told the conference: “That site is ours, there is no pressure, but we know we can’t deliver it by 2021 now.

“We bought that building to be used a as a community venue, and that hasn’t changed. We will have to go back to planning.”

The council praised the £65m investment coming in from NewRiver and without this Burgess Hill would be a ‘town centre full of charity shops’.

Member of the steering group Matt Roberts, who was asked to join by Burgess Hill Theatre Club, said: “I am extremely disappointed. Maybe people assumed it was going to go ahead and didn’t vote, the same as referendum.

“The theatre club will not be getting a new arts hall now and I am now worried about the town – we are having our cultural hearts ripped out.

“This was going to be a community asset, it was going to be our kids performing in there and this decision is now going to delay the building for the next five to ten years.

Picture supplied by Colliers International

Picture supplied by Colliers International

“From my point of view, we lost. We are all going to have to put our thinking caps on. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am.”

Following the news that Martlets Hall was to be demolished and not replaced, a petition of 6,000 signatures was received by the town council, which declared support for the provision of an arts venue, which would be allocated for live arts, commercial entertainment, cultural events and community events.

Residents agreed the hall was the only suitable venue and any steps to close or demolish the Martlets without first building and equipping a like-for-like replacement would be ‘detrimental to the interests of Burgess Hill and its surrounding areas’.

The town council noted these concerns and the urgency thereof and coupled them into to its Neighbourhood Plan, which identified the area around Cyprus Road as the Cultural Quarter.

The council appointed a consultant to determine whether there was a need for centrally located community space and the study showed it could be justified. The consultant gave a presentation at the last annual town meeting.

The next step saw the appointment of a Steering Group made up of members of the community and councillors. They appointed Colliers, who designed a community hall on the site of the Royal British Legion building in Cyprus Road which

incorporated the existing Cyprus Hall.

The facility envisaged a ‘flexible performance area with retractable seating and rooms for meetings, exhibitions and other gatherings’.

The town council received 1,563 votes in favour of the venue, compared to 721 against, giving a majority of 841 in favour of the venue.

The next step was to identify ways of funding it, and given the urgency, the council said the quickest way to raise funds was through the Public Works Loan Board loan (PWLB). A public meeting was held to discuss this on November 23, last year.

The rest of the money was planned to come from developer contributions, council reserves, grants and fundraising.

The council felt the loan was the ‘most prudent way’ of raising the amount required, as to wait for developer contributions, this could have ‘delayed the project upwards of fifteen years’.

What do you think about the decision? Email middy.news@jpress.co.uk