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£1m heritage centre ‘will not give good value for money’

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Fenland Council says £1m for a Whittlesey heritage centre ‘will not give good value for money’

Rocketing costs – now expected to be £1m – could have put a block on it. For good.

Although Whittlesey town council, which offered £8,000 towards it, has put it on the back burner, Fenland District Council concedes “the project will not give good value for money to the taxpayer”.

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Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority offered £500,000 for a new visitor centre to showcase local artefacts and tell the story of Whittlesey.

It was backed with £1,666 from the district council as well as the £8,000 from the town council.

Land worth approximately £100,000 and gifted by Forterra PLC was also factored into the original estimates.

The building would have been built on land owned by Forterra and adjacent to King’s Dyke nature reserve, about three quarters of a miles outside the town.

“Substantial work has been undertaken by third party consultants prior to the Growing Fenland project regarding this project,” says a report from Fenland Council

It says that following the Combined Authority’s approval of the grant, the town council put together a project working group consisting of three elected members.

Work on the design of the facility has been underway since 2021 but halted in March 2022.

“Whilst a design now exists, there is a substantial gap in funding between the expected cost of the new building and the funding available,” says Fenland Council.

“Other funders have been considered with no success – the funding gap is too large and requires a national funder such as the Heritage Lottery Fund.”

In February the Heritage Lottery Fund refused a bid for £244,000 towards it – around 28 per cent of the projected cost.

Fenland Council says with the current climate in the construction market, alongside the abnormal inflation seen in the UK, any build project would need to add in a substantial inflationary contingency.

It would also need to add in “contingencies for unforeseen issues encountered during the build.

“These considerations increase the funding gap further.

“The project team has considered the location and the gap in funding, alongside market conditions and believe that continuing with the project at this time is unlikely to produce a facility in a timely, affordable manner.”

Fenland Council says: “The project will not give good value for money to the taxpayer and work on the heritage centre has been suspended since early summer 2022.”

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Alternative propositions include awaiting further gap funding although “given the current estimated cost of the facility now exceeds £1m, it is considered that the facility will not represent good value to the taxpayer.

“Additional supportive gap funding will not change the poor value for money that the project would represent in the current construction climate and this option has been discounted”.

The council says various ideas were considered including “relocating the heritage centre to a more central position within the town and reducing the scope of the design.

“Whilst this is possible, the facility that would be developed as a result is unlikely to be able to provide the facilities necessary in an effective heritage centre and would not meet community or visitor expectations.

“The project group has discounted this option.”

Councillors will be told of plans to focus the remaining Growing Fenland fund on improving community provision in the town.

“As the heritage centre either in its original form and location, or in a reduced form and different location has now been halted, local elected members have discussed other options for the remaining funding to improve community assets within Whittlesey,” says the Fenland Council report.

“Members are determined to retain the grant funding to improve the town for local residents.

“Members focus has been drawn to the very popular community green space that is central within the town – the Manor Field and Leisure Centre – and the community

“In summary, members have been very committed to delivery of the Heritage Centre in Whittlesey.

“Unfortunately, the development of a facility to match local ambition has proved far more costly than originally envisaged due to a changing construction market and abnormal inflation levels.”

However the town council seems either not to have given up on the heritage centre or are singing from a different hymn book.

In July mayor Cllr David Mason successfully put forward a motion from the town council to the Combined Authority and backed unanimously by colleagues.

He asked for an extension to March 2025 for the £500,000 to be spent.

Cllr Mason said the extra time would allow the town council to make changes and produce a more cost-effective heritage centre.

The heritage centre would have been a “relatively modest building”.

It would have included one or more education spaces or classrooms, flexible space to incorporate small exhibitions and indoor events, coffee shop, toilets, and office and storage space suitable for staff and volunteers.

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