Uncertainty over future of Shire Hall

Campaigners have criticised 12 wasted years over the future of Chelmsford’s most iconic building as concerns surface that the company given the rights to develop it may be forced to pull out.

Essex County Council (ECC) had 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 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 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.

Malcolm Noble, chairman of Chelmsford Civic Society, has said that the main issue is around disabled access of which there is currently effectively none.

Mr Noble said: “It’s no more accessible than it was when it was a magistrate’s court.

“The society’s position has always been clear over three requirements – public access, community use, consultation with the community and that Essex County Council would retain interest in its use even if handed to a private developer.

“It doesn’t look good that we are getting so close to the wire.”

Chelmsford City Council and ECC have been in discussions over an alternative plan, which Mr Noble claims “doesn’t show a lot of confidence”.

Mr Noble continued: “In anticipation which doesn’t show a lot of confidence the city council and Essex County Council have been talking about an alternative if Aquila doesn’t submit a planning application.

“If Aquila pulls out and Essex County Council isn’t prepared to run it themselves what’s the alternative ?

“It remains standing doing nothing and that is not acceptable to the people of Chelmsford.

“Our view is that it could have been used these parts years. It didn’t need to sit there doing nothing.”

Councillor Stephen Robinson, leader of Chelmsford City Council, has said that ECC’s decision into giving Aquila the sole rights has led to years worth of delay.

Cllr Robinson said: “We have been concerned that the county council has put all its eggs into one basket and by not having a Plan B has effectively meant that things have dragged on for far too long.

“The city council is keen to work with the county council on a Plan B.

“We have noted that the deadline is in February and they need to think whether they want to extend that and the city has offered the county additional planning advice.

“We have said that if we had a Plan B which was more community oriented that would be our preference, but it might incentivise Plan A to speed up.”

Aquila has said it cannot comment.

Essex County Council has been approached for comment.

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter