New vision for the community

| Multiplex cinema | Theatre-and-meeting room complex | Library | Outdoor swimming pool | JUST weeks after taking control of St Neots Town Council, where the previous hung council has spent months dithering about how to spend a benefactor s gift of £1mil

| Multiplex cinema | Theatre-and-meeting room complex | Library | Outdoor swimming pool |

JUST weeks after taking control of St Neots Town Council, where the previous hung council has spent months dithering about how to spend a benefactor's gift of £1million, Liberal Democrats have revealed an ambitious multi-million-pound vision for new community facilities.

Not only do they want a multiplex cinema, but they believe the town can also support a theatre-and-meeting room complex, a replacement outdoor swimming pool and a new library.

And they believe it can be paid for in large measure by releasing sites it owns outside the town centre for new affordable housing, and a monthly lottery that could generate £60,000 a year, though it is likely also to involve some increase in Council Tax.

The council is repeatedly stung by comments from residents that, although St Neots is the largest town in Cambridgeshire, they have to travel to Huntingdon, Cambridge or Bedford for many of their leisure activities and for serious shopping expeditions.

The cinema and theatre proposals must jump a variety of hurdles to become reality and require co-operation from Huntingdonshire District Council and possibly the county council in land-swap deals and from the private sector, such as cinema operators.

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But the plans form part of a Lib Dem vision to restore St Neots's status.

They are driven, said the council's new leader, Councillor Gordon Thorpe, by public reaction to a consultation exercise the party carried out before the May town council elections.

The results on May 3 suggest the idea was well received by voters.

For commercial reasons Cllr Thorpe is reluctant to be drawn on where the new facilities might be, but he insisted that they would be central and would have adequate car parking.

Lord of the Manor Peter Rowley, who has offered the town £1million - part of the proceeds of the sale of Loves Farm, east of the railway, for development of 1,250 new homes - has strongly hinted that he might withdraw the offer because the town council had made little progress on deciding how to spend the money on a new community facility.

He has made it plain that he favoured a "movie theatre". But a cinema complex would cost several million pounds and, without a building to house such a business, few multiplex operators would be likely to look at the town. Many people were attracted by the idea, but others favoured different amenities. The previous town council could not decide what to do.

So Mr Rowley is likely to take a keen interest in these new plans. The new council acknowledges that his contribution would be welcome, but says it would want to proceed with or without his money. The Lib Dems are adamant that it was not a primary motivating factor, though they point out that most Victorian public amenities, even town halls, were funded by benefactors and public subscription.

Important to their plans is the development, after Loves Farm, of land to the south of Cambridge Road. They believe it could sustain between 3,000 and 4,000 further new homes. The new residents' patronage and local taxes would tip the balance between viability for new civic facilities and profitability.

The Lib Dems also want to see better bus services, particularly links with Cambourne, redevelopment of the three areas identified by HDC as contributing to revitalising the town - the Priory, St Mary's "urban village" and the town centre - and progressive improvements to the town's eight distinct neighbourhoods.

In addition, a replacement for the old open-air swimming pool, on a different and more central site, could be a runner, but it would be a decision for the pool trustees.

The new council has identified "champions" among councillors to concentrate the authority's mind on various aspects of public service - transport, housing, environment and arts and leisure.

"We want to make sure that any land developed for affordable housing is sold with the caveat that priority would be given to St Neots residents," Cllr Thorpe said.

He puts the total capital cost of the new facilities at up to £6million - the equivalent of the Council Tax precept it raises over 12 years - but the net cost, after land sales could be half that, and less with Mr Rowley's £1million and possible grant aid.

"That's not necessarily insurmountable," Cllr Thorpe told The Hunts Post.

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