County council warned to insist on guarantees before extending lease on Shire Hall

There can be no justification to extend a lease on Chelmsford’s most famous landmark without cast iron guarantees it will be worth it, Essex County Council has been warned.

Campaigners had already criticised 12 wasted years over the future of Shire Hall in the run up to ECC’s decision to extend a lease for development company Aquila to submit a planning application.

The county council had hoped that a planning application for Shire Hall, which has been empty since the Magistrates Court vacated it in 2012, would have been lodged before the end of 2020.

However, a contract with Aquila – the company also behind the Bond Street development to develop Shire Hall in exchange for a 250-year lease – is conditional upon it achieving planning consent for change of use and associated works by February 21.

After that the county council is free to pull out and choose a different scheme.

Aquila has already been given one 18-month extension and it is now clear the council is willing to offer another six-month extension.

Rumours have circulated for years over what the future holds for Shire Hall.

Plans were mooted to convert it into a restaurant and some have also campaigned to make it multi-purpose.

Malcolm Noble, chairman of Chelmsford Civic Society, said: “We have not objected to the principle of a local developer like Aquila having the responsibility for developing Shire Hall.

“What we have objected to is that there has not been any guarantee at any point that Aquila will be held to an agreement to produce a masterplan or submit a planning application by an agreed date.”

Aquila initially had until September 2019 to obtain necessary planning consent and take over responsibility for Shire Hall.

That agreement was extended until February 21 this year, and looks like it will be extended again by another six months to September 2021.

Mr Noble continued: “Now we are in the same position again and I don’t know for certain that we are not repeating the position from last time.

“They have been given an extension without any guarantee that there will be by September an outline planning application.

“How long is this going to continue whereby Essex County Council is kicking the ball down the road each time and the only response to it is an agreement that has been made by Essex County Council and the city council that they will work together towards an alternative plan?”

“The power to act rests solely with Essex County Council.

“Unless they are able to say they have a cast iron agreement from Aquila that they will come up with realistic proposals by the end of September, I cannot see this extension is justified.”

A spokesperson for ECC said: “Essex County Council has agreed a six-month extension to the current Agreement for Lease of Shire Hall, Chelmsford, between ECC and developers Aquila.

“All other terms and conditions within the Agreement for Lease remain the same.

“This extension has been requested by Aquila to achieve appropriate listed building planning consent from Chelmsford City Council.

“Delays in this process due to the Covid-19 pandemic have contributed to the need for this extension.

“Essex County Council is working with all partners to secure a productive future for Shire Hall.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter