Heritage, arts, and music venue being devised for Leighton Buzzard town centre

Councillors urged to embrace a modern vision and not simply sell land to highest bidder for flats

Monday, 26th April 2021, 11:52 am
Updated Monday, 26th April 2021, 12:32 pm

Plans are being drawn up for a heritage, arts, and music venue on the south side of Leighton Buzzard High Street - but the project needs the support of Central Beds Council which owns part of the land required.

Leighton Buzzard & District Archaeological and Historical Society wants to press ahead with the scheme which has been devised by landowner David Scott, whose late father was a member of the society.

Mr Scott's site contains a building used by him as a forge and three other business. It also contains the old Rothschild stables which he wants to adapt as part of the proposed heritage/arts centre.

Leighton House taken from the rear in about 1890. You can see the front of the NatWest bank on the other side of the High Street. Leighton House was adapted by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild and he lived there while he built Waddesdon Manor. He entertained The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII)who stayed there along with the Empress of Austria and they all went hunting together.

There is also the old Rothschild gardens (behind Wilko) which are overgrown and derelict but belong to Central Beds Council. The society and Mr Scott want to utilise this land for their project too and hope to persuade Central Bedfordshire Council that it is a good idea.

To that end, Paul Brown from the historical society attended a Central Beds Council meeting on Thursday.

Addressing councillors, he said: "Most of you know that Leighton Buzzard is the largest town in Central Bedfordshire with close to 50,000 population. It also has the least public provision - no public meeting hall or community hall of any kind within walking distance of the town centre.

"Visitors to the town wishing to see the local tourist attractions, the ancient churches, to celebrate the town’s rich medieval history, are astonished to discover there is not even a kiosk where they can find out about where to go and what to see.

"Tourists who come wishing to celebrate Leighton Buzzard’s pivotal role in winning the Second World War are often shocked that there is nowhere to visit and nothing to commemorate this. For those of you who do not know Leighton Buzzard was Q Central, the headquarters of communications for the war effort, and headquarters of radar for Britain and Europe and the Far East. Bletchley Park was a mere outstation of Leighton Buzzard – but there is not even a plaque in the town to honour those thousands who served here."

"That is why we are so delighted and enthusiastic about the offer by David Scott, to build a heritage and arts centre on a chunk of land on the south side of the High Street next to land owned by your council. His late father was a member of our 200 strong archaeological and history society and wanted to do something for the town. He knew that in Victorian times, when the Prince of Wales frequently visited the town to stay with the Rothschilds in the High Street, it attracted many tourists."

Mr Brown told councillors how Mr Scott envisaged a centre which would be open to visitors from 9am to late evening, providing a meeting place, somewhere to get refreshments and to find out about and appreciate the history of Leighton and Linslade.

He said: "Now that local history is part of the national curriculum it will fulfill an educational need, currently completely neglected by Central Bedfordshire Council. We as a Society cannot keep up with all the requests we get from teachers for help in this area. But this is not some idealistic vision, we want it to be a commercial success, not just to cover its own running costs, but to bring new life into the town centre.

"That is why we are going for an integrated, heritage, arts, and music venue; this last not a large theatre but a small intimate space. We want to cooperate with the library and its theatre to work as a team to increase the attraction of coming into the town and offer a much larger range of entertainment than is currently possible."

He revealed that Tom Emerson, of 6a Architects in London, an award-winning arts, theatre and heritage centre designer had been brought in to draw up some plans.

He said: "Our brief includes making the centre carbon negative, which I hope will also act as a showpiece and draw visitors. We also want it to include the historic Rothschild stables behind the High Street. We hope it will include an open courtyard for a café but also a space for exhibitions and bringing history to life through theatre.

"We are also talking to many other people including the Rothschild Foundations who have sent us plans of their old gardens on the site, now derelict and in the ownership of Central Bedfordshire Council.

"This is why I am talking to you today. Covid has taught us the value of our communities, the value of shopping in and supporting local businesses.

"Some councillors have already expressed a wish to sell the council owned land to the highest bidder so developers can cash in by building more flats in the town centre.

"It would be wonderful if instead the majority of Central Bedfordshire councillors embraced a more modern post Covid vision. People walking into their town centre to restaurants, to visit exhibitions and celebrate their culture and their history rather than driving them out of the town to Milton Keynes and elsewhere to spend their money and their leisure time.

"We would dearly like to cooperate with Central Bedfordshire to redress the balance of lack of provision. Leighton Buzzard provides a large part of the council’s income but is the Cinderella when it comes to its services. We want to build a commercial success and are already finding outside partners who want to contribute, but we need the council’s help and goodwill too."

Paul Horne, who is also part of the group developing the project, also addressed the meeting, telling councillors that a need for a venue (or venues) that can support intimate

live music performances, art exhibitions and local history displays had been identified, as well as a desire for a versatile meeting and education space in the town.

He said: "CBC has been exploring options for the development of the land south of the high street in Leighton Buzzard since 2009. In a recent post Cllr Amanda Dodwell had this to say of CBC’s work on the development of this site: ‘I will not pretend that CBC is in a position to hold its head high here. This has been dragging on longer than I have been a member of CBC, and I am not holding my breath as to when it will be resolved’.

He said: "It’s good to have an acknowledgement of some past failings but the lack of present urgency here is of concern. Leighton Buzzard has seen no major town centre redevelopment since the 1970s and it is time to form a visionary (and strategic) plan for its revitalisation to support the post pandemic recovery of the high street."

Mr Horne said the arts centre group had formed in November 2020 and had made significant progress already - growing a network of local supporters, working with landowner David Scott, and forging additional partnerships with property owners.

He revealed: "We are in discussion with a well established local performing arts venue to explore a partnership and a possible relocation to Leighton Buzzard. We are collaborating with Emma Whittmore owner of the Little Luvvies dance and drama school who is keen to invest in the development of a town centre site or property and wants to work with CBC and David

Scott.

"We are in discussion with the directors of UCL’s Slade School of Fine Art and the Bartlett School of Architecture on developing research projects and collaborations. UCL has a specific interest in our project and a desire to explore other wider collaborations with CBC.

"Our next steps are to meet with Leighton Buzzard’s Library and theatre team. This is a great community resource, but it needs to be understood that these

facilities do not fulfil the needs of a growing community of creative professionals and supporters of the arts. Of special consideration is the theatre’s limitations as a live music venue.

"We believe there is an opportunity to forge a creative heart at the centre of our town to engage visitors and inspire our community. We are asking CBC to work in partnership with us, to invest in us and to share our vision for Leighton Buzzard."

In response Cllr Ian Dalgarno, who's the executive member for community services, thanked the speakers for bringing to the council's attention "the passion which is in Leighton Buzzard and the surrounding area for our heritage, the arts and culture".

He said: "We've had a year of Covid-19 which has impacted heavily on the sector, and we've now received funding from the Arts Council England to work with partners to gauge the impact and to engage again with the original partners we dealt with as the LGA 9 Local Government Association) review to see how we can bring forward a strategy and develop a process and support all those impacted in the arts and culture by the pandemic.

"We're working closely with several strategic partners, such as the Arts Council England and the Royal Opera House Bridge, which has a strong outreach work programme.

"We collaborate across the council and with the wider cultural sector to develop our offer. There has been a deficit of arts and culture across all of Central Bedfordshire. That's why I was heavily engaged in bidding for the LGA review into arts and culture.

"But any development and new facilities that CBC would support, whether in Leighton Buzzard or elsewhere in Central Bedfordshire, would be based on the outcome of the recommendations of the strategy as it develops.

"I would ask interested parties and all of the people from the different groups which have spoken, this evening, to engage with the council as we bring forward that strategy review and do all of those surveys.

"It's important we get a description of unmet need out there, so we can get a good judgment on where we develop facilities across Central Beds going forward. There's been an on-going dialogue between the library service and stakeholders in Leighton Buzzard looking at how we explore how arts and heritage can be further supported and how the current library theatre can be developed to meet the community needs.

"CBC has a strong, high quality and diverse programme at both our commercial theatres in Dunstable and at our library theatre in Leighton Buzzard, and also our 12 libraries across Central Beds.

"We're keen to understand the collective interest in Leighton Buzzard and across all of Central Bedfordshire for the ambitions of the arts and culture within the area to help us develop the strategy as we progress.

"I'm more than happy to meet with interested parties. We can be very flexible with the library theatre space and the arrangements in there. We can move things around and the space can be further explored.

"With the refurbishment that's been going on, we hope to attract more people to what will be a much nicer welcoming space where we can maximise the opportunity for working with all of the community across Leighton Buzzard."