Blame game over Chelmsford Christmas panto axe

The cost to refurbish Chelmsford’s city centre theatres has spiralled to nearly £4million, sparking concerns that Brexit is to blame for this year’s Christmas Pantomime having to be cancelled.

A full scope of works is currently is being carried out by Chelmsford Council of both the Civic Theatre and the adjacent Cramphorn Studio to include a complete internal refurbishment of the foyer area, bar and toilets in both theatres – following budget approval for £1m in February 2021.

The delays to construction has spelled the cancellation of this year’s panto production of Jack and the Beanstalk with harsh words traded over Brexit.

The council had increased the renovation by £500,000 in November 2021 to ensure cost assurance against volatility associated with construction and material costs, with shortages and increasing prices.

But in March 2022, the approved budget was again hiked up to £2.746m. A further £500,000 is now required to complete the scheme, meaning the estimated cost of the project is now £3.246m.

Jack and the Beanstalk was due to run at Chelmsford Civic Theatre between November 30 and January 8 which was set to have earned the council around £440,000. It means taken as a whole, the total cost to the council is moving toward £4m.

Councillor Mike Steel (Cons, Broomfield and The Walthams) speaking at Chelmsford Cabinet on October 18, said: “I’ve had quite a few residents and some of my constituents complaining to me about the theatre being closed for Christmas are very disappointed and I really need to know how and why it went so wrong.

“Surely the original plans and the investigations or whatever must have had a degree of security for opening for the panto at Christmas and how did it go so wrong.”

Cllr Marie Goldman, whose portfolio covers the theatre, was unable to give a date for when the theatres will re-open while blaming Brexit for difficulties associated with sourcing suitable building supplies as well as unforeseen issues around a lack of fire stopping between the two buildings.

She said: “It has amounted to delays but the other delays that have come about have come about simply because of some decisions that were taken by your party unfortunately Cllr Steel in their advocating of moving forward in the way that they did and failing to obtain a good Brexit deal meaning that it is very difficult to obtain materials which is adding to delays.”

She added: “It is that is very sad news but our team has tried their very best to make the pantomime happen and unfortunately in this instance we felt it appropriate to cancel it as early as we possibly could to give people the opportunity to get a refund and I understand that many hundreds of people have now been refunded through the team’s spectacularly efficient work.”

Cllr Steel added: “I am surprised it’s my fault actually. I wasn’t in charge of the project. I’ve spent 40 years running major projects. When I run a project if anything goes wrong I hold myself responsible for it.”

A statement from the council on the decision to cancel this year’s pantomime said: “Like so many other construction projects right across the country, we’ve had to contend with the worst delays to supplies and materials we’ve ever experienced on a project of this kind.

“Add to this all the surprises that have been thrown up by renovation works to two different period buildings, and we sadly find ourselves in a position where we can’t guarantee we’ll be able to open in time for panto.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter