Shire Hall plans expected by end of the year

Plans for the development of a Chelmsford landmark are expected to be published by the end of the year.

But concerns remain that the plans for Shire Hall from Aquila will not include any provision for public access to the iconic listed building – one of the oldest in Chelmsford.

One proposal – for an art gallery – has been rejected by the building’s owners – Essex County Council (ECC).

The proposal came with suggestions to dramatically alter the contract arrangement with Aquila for a mixed-used development, losing the current £1million receipt to ECC.

Shire Hall has been empty since the Magistrates’ Court vacated in 2012.

A contract with Aquila, the company also behind the Bond Street development, to develop Shire Hall has been reached after significant marketing, engagement and legal work.

The exact detail of the type of development Aquila has in mind is yet to be revealed.

Chelmsford City Council leader Stephen Robinson said: “There is a cross party view at Chelmsford City Council that we want to ensure there is public access to the building.

“There had been various imaginative proposals  from the Chelmsford Civic Society, working with councillors, to have art-based community-based activities in the building, which was rejected by Essex County Council.

“And they went with their preferred option of selling a long lease to a developer to do whatever they want. And that has been my criticism.

“I think Essex County Council should be more proactive ensuring there is community access to the building going forward.”

Low-level heating is being maintained, paid for by ECC taxpayers, to prevent damage from damp and mould during periods where external temperature falls below 12 degrees Celsius.

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.

But for seven years since 2012 it has sat empty while negotiations drag on over what changes can be made to it.

A response to a Freedom of Information request to ECC said: “The county council is under contract to Aquila Developments to sell Shire Hall on a 250-year lease. This agreement is conditional upon Aquila achieving planning consent for change of use and associated works. Aquila have appointed architects to develop and submit a planning application to Chelmsford City Council, aiming to submit the application late in 2020.”

A spokesman for Aquila said the pre-application process with Chelmsford City Council and Heritage England is ongoing.

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter