Chester’s former MP Christine Russell says it’s a ‘scandal’ the ‘people’s town hall’ is no longer available for public meetings at an affordable price.
Ms Russell commented after it emerged a three-day public inquiry, starting on January 20, to examine a controversial student housing scheme at Tower Wharf, will have to be held across two venues because of a lack of availability of suitable meeting rooms.
In the past the town hall was often used for public meetings, including planning inquiries, but Cheshire West and Chester Council can’t afford to use its own venue since it awarded a five-year contract for running the civic building to Chester Race Company.
The council says it did consider the town hall for the Tower Wharf inquiry but the cost was considered prohibitive at £800 per day.
Ms Russell, the city’s former Labour MP who lost her seat in 2010, said: “The town hall belongs to the people of Chester. It should be the principle location for meetings that either have an impact on the city or are of great concern to the people of Chester. I think it’s an absolute scandal that it is no longer available at an affordable price.”
The ex-MP added: “It’s not the race company’s fault. The anger should be vented at the local authority for handing over total control of a public building.”
A resident of the Garden Lane area, Ms Russell objects to the 350-bed student scheme at Tower Wharf by Miller Developments on grounds it is not sustainable, largely because of the insufficient number of parking spaces which she fears will impact on surrounding streets.
The plan was rejected by the council’s strategic planning committee but the developer launched an appeal resulting in a public inquiry where an inspector will hear evidence from both sides before making a recommendation to the Secretary of State.
She added: “My objection is the lack of car parking. It will make life unbearable for people living round there.”
Catherine Green, of Chester Green Party, who objects to the Tower Wharf plan, said: “I am concerned that the re-convened planning inquiry into the proposed student accommodation at Tower Wharf will be held in two different locations. This will make it much more confusing for the local residents who want to object to the proposal. This is not good for democracy.
“It reflects badly on the council that it has no suitable meeting rooms available for such an important inquiry. Not only has the council sold its purpose-built County Hall to rent space in the privately owned HQ building, but I am now shocked to learn that the use of rooms in the town hall is controlled by a private company and the council cannot afford to hold meetings in there.
“This whole issue also shows how our public services, including council buildings and university accommodation, are being privatised for the benefit of big business.”
Objector Rachel Dison said: “I was very surprised and disappointed to see that the venues are split – which is potentially confusing and far from ideal. I presume best efforts were made, but I know of two venues for hire in the Garden Quarter which would probably have been available!”
Council spokeswoman Rachel Ashley said days one and three of the inquiry would take place in the larger room at the Quaker Meeting House, Frodsham Street, while the second day would be at St Mary’s Centre.
She added: “We did consider the town hall but the cost was prohibitive at £800 a day.”