THE £8million-plus project to provide St Neots with a seven-screen cinema complex has taken a step closer to reality.

THE £8million-plus project to provide St Neots with a seven-screen cinema complex has taken a step closer to reality.

Chelmsford-based Turnstone Estates has been identified as preferred developer for the project, years after landowners Peter Rowley offered the town £1million from the proceeds of the sale of Loves Farm for housing development.

The proposed redevelopment scheme for the former fire station site and waste recycling centre at St Neots will now be worked up with the District Council, St Neots Town Council and local businesses, the company said.

The development is expected to include an 18,000 sq ft multiplex cinema providing seven screens, restaurant units and 160 public car parking spaces, with vehicular access from Huntingdon Street.

Turnstone managing director Chris Goldsmith said: "We shall be working closely with the councils to create a design which, we are confident, would be hugely beneficial to the town and local residents.

"Cinema operators and restaurant owners have already expressed their interest in this scheme and we are in discussions with them to ensure that the best names in leisure are brought to St Neots."

As well as concluding a deal with HDC and persuading the town council to make its land available, the developer will have to negotiate with German supermarket giant Lidl, which has rights of access across the site, before submitting a planning application.

"The developers are not looking to us for subsidy, and we would get a positive return for the land," HDC said.

"National policy still encourages facilities being provided in town centres, but that does not necessarily mean that it's a done deal," warned community services director Malcolm Sharp. "There are issues to be resolved such as other people's land and other people's rights over the land.

"But from our perspective it could happen quite quickly," he added.

The announcement generated support from Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in the town.

Liberal Democrat town and district Councillor Steve van de Kerkhove told The Hunts Post: "It will be an absolute boon to the town - somewhere for the young people to go instead of Huntingdon or Bedford.

"There's no guarantee that it will happen, but we are happy as a town council to give up the land for a cinema. We have said absolutely firmly that we would not let the land go other than for a cinema."

And Conservative Councillor Barry Chapman, who also sits on both councils and has been campaigning for a cinema for years, said he was "jubilant about it".

"Turnstone is a fantastic developer and has the nation's best operators lined up." The plans would also include a theatre auditorium, he added.

HDC was effectively putting in £3millon to the project. "The district council is valuing the community benefits and the regeneration of St Neots over and above the financial aspect."

Cllr Chapman thought there was now a good chance of the project getting a fair wind. "It will make a hell of a difference to the town."

But he criticised those who complained that St Neots was treated as the poor relation of Huntingdonshire. ="HDC has put twice as much into St Neots as it has collected in Council Tax, such as the £3million that went into the leisure centre last year."