No decision on where Shire Hall improvement funds will come from

There has been no decision over who will pick up the bill for accessibility improvement works to Shire Hall in Chelmsford.

With plans now submitted for access improvements to be made at the landmark, there is still no firm decision over what Aquila – as the preferred bidder for the development of Shire Hall – wants to do with it.

The company has only until the end of February to submit a planning application before a long stop date expires on its option to buy the building. Essex County Council (ECC) as the owner of the building can pull out of the deal.

In the meantime there has now been a joint planning application from ECC and Chelmsford City Council for improved accessibility as part of the wider public realm works in Tindal Square.

The application for ramped access and other works does not relate to the future use of Shire Hall, but will offer better options for whoever takes Shire Hall on.

Leader of Chelmsford Council, Stephen Robinson, said: “This is a public realm project. The application is related to the pedestrianisation of Tindal Square and part of that is providing access to Shire Hall.

“This is a planning application and not a project.

“So it is not a decision on where the money comes from.

“The decision has not been made to go ahead with the scheme in terms of funding.”

ECC has hoped that a planning application for Shire Hall – which has been empty since the Magistrates’ Court vacated 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 28.

After that ECC is free to pull out and choose a different scheme . Aquila has already been given one 18-month extension and it is unclear whether ECC would be willing to offer another.

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.

Cllr Robinson said: “I think that it would be  good for the building owner and operator to contribute to the scheme.”

He added: “Hopefully this planning application will incentivise ECC and their preferred bidder to get on with their proposal because it will show that improved accessibility to the public will improve the setting of Shire Hall and therefore make whatever they propose to do better.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter