Cornerstone 'catastrophe' a 'human failure' as fears grow for future of Kettering art gallery complex

Kettering’s art gallery and museum have been closed for more than three years
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Fears are growing for the future of Kettering’s Cornerstone art gallery complex as promised work to install scaffolding for a watertight tent over the leaky Grade-II listed building has yet to materialise.

Residents’ frustrations have increased as no firm progress has been made since the abandoned ‘soft’ opening of the £4.5m library and gallery extension that had been set for January 2023. The art gallery and museum have been closed for more than three years. North Northamptonshire Council (NNC) say they are ‘working quickly’ to get roof work approved and that the fact they cannot open is ‘extremely disappointing’.

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Following meetings that were to discuss the stalled project, Dr David Brown of The Friends of Kettering Art Gallery and Museum says his fears for the future of the facility have not been allayed.

Cornerstone - KetteringCornerstone - Kettering
Cornerstone - Kettering

He said: “It’s a catastrophe, a human failure. People have known about the problem of the roof for decades. I think it’s been a huge disappointment and a huge obfuscation by those in power [at the time] – Northamptonshire County Council and Kettering Borough Council. Now the current council officers have been left with this project.”

The two-storey extension and refurbishment was to see a new art store, offices, community rooms and a cafe, all linked into the Alfred East Art Gallery and Kettering Library.

Funds gained from grants and from the now-disbanded Northamptonshire County Council and Kettering Borough Council were to pay for work on the whole area, including the Manor House Museum. But as costs spiralled the museum – with its own structural problems – was mothballed.

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Only two of the eight sign-posted locations are open - Kettering Library and the BIPC LocalOnly two of the eight sign-posted locations are open - Kettering Library and the BIPC Local
Only two of the eight sign-posted locations are open - Kettering Library and the BIPC Local
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Dr Brown attended the place and environment scrutiny panel at NNC, which replaced the two former councils. At the meeting Kerry Purnell, NNC’s assistant director for communities and leisure, updated councillors with a specially-prepared presentation.

Ms Purnell clarified that costs for the repairs to the Collyweston slate roof would be put before the executive and to full council and the order for work to begin ‘could not be placed until such agreement to progress was received’.

The cost for the work is not yet known but it is thought it could be in excess of £1m. Costings for the work are expected by October at the earliest as specialist conservation architects and surveyors need to be engaged. It is further complicated as there are now only two companies who produce Collyweston slate and once an order has been placed it can take up to almost a year for the tiles to be delivered.

Dr Brown said: “I don’t see anything happening in the next few years.

Kettering library and art gallery - The £4.5m Cornerstone extension includes a cafe and meeting rooms that cannot be used by the public. The Alfred East Art Gallery is also out of useKettering library and art gallery - The £4.5m Cornerstone extension includes a cafe and meeting rooms that cannot be used by the public. The Alfred East Art Gallery is also out of use
Kettering library and art gallery - The £4.5m Cornerstone extension includes a cafe and meeting rooms that cannot be used by the public. The Alfred East Art Gallery is also out of use
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"The scaffolding needs to be priced up and the roofing contractor needs to be found – then they need to look for funding.

“We (the Friends) had no representation. The Friends aren’t in a position to hasten the outcome. They said the library is fully operational – I don’t think that is true.”

Two days after the panel met, motions and questions tabled by opposition councillors at a full council meeting about the building were left undebated and unanswered – the meeting was guillotined by the NNC leadership after it over-ran the three hours allotted.

The next opportunity to debate the motion will be at the next full council meeting on October 26.

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Dr Brown said: “After a while, the tendency is to give up. But we need to keep a regular eye on the situation. The danger is unless there’s prompt finding of funding there’s going to be further deterioration of the new floor.

"It’s not unknown that libraries and galleries close. There have been prestigious galleries that have closed. It’s my fear that the gallery may never reopen and that’s especially true of the museum.

“It will drop out of public attention. It will take an immense effort to rekindle enthusiasm. It’s now coming up to four years. This is going to be a long battle and we have to be prepared for a long wait – it could be a very bitter fight.

"We need to keep the spirit of the gallery alive, make sure that people don’t forget about it. It’s a long haul.”

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MP for Kettering Philip Hollobone said he would like to see the Cornerstone complex ‘open as soon as possible’.

He said: “Kettering’s Alfred East Art Gallery, library and museum, together with the beautiful Manor House gardens, are right at the heart of Kettering’s renowned heritage quarter and after all the £4.5m Government and local council money which has been be spent on the design and build of the new extension, the sooner it is open to local residents the better.

“I have raised direct with NNC my strong support for the new extension to be opened as soon as possible and I know that NNC is actively looking at how it can solve the funding and technical challenges to enable this to happen."

Cllr Helen Howell, deputy leader of NNC and executive member for sport, leisure, culture and tourism, said: “Opening of the building, either fully or in part, is dependent on decisions that will need to be made in relation to the library roof, which as previously reported, will run as a separate project to the main Cornerstone project.

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“Work has been completed on the new build and it is looking great, but due to the issues with the deteriorating library roof and the impact it is having, we are not able to open at the moment - which is extremely disappointing.

“Once open, the facilities will be a fantastic asset to not just Kettering but the wider north Northamptonshire. To ensure that Cornerstone can open as soon as possible, and residents can see the result of this exciting project, we are working quickly to seek approval for the library roof work and are currently awaiting updated costings from quantity surveyors.

“A report is currently being produced by NNC officers, which will include costings. At the moment, it is anticipated the report will be on the November agenda of North Northamptonshire Council’s executive. Due to the significant capital investment needed to replace the library roof, it will then need to be approved by full council.

“Approval by both executive and full council will determine the timeline for the programme of work and when the building will be watertight, in order for Cornerstone to open.”

Cornerstone timeline

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2018 – Kettering Borough Council (KBC), owners of Kettering Museum and the Alfred East Art Gallery, and Northamptonshire County Council (NCC), owners of Kettering Library, start discussions setting out the long-term desire to ‘improve and maximise the potential’ of the gallery, library and museum and their services

2019 – More than 700 people respond to a survey about the town’s heritage quarter

2019 – KBC commits funds to pay for a feasibility study by heritage development, funding and planning experts Colliers International

2019 – Funding application is submitted to South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership Local (SEMLEP) Growth Fund resulting in the the ‘GLaM’ successfully being identified as a ‘pipeline project’ – recognised within the region for its ‘strategic importance’ and ‘deliverability’

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July 2020 – Working alongside SEMLEP the GLaM project is submitted as part of a regional bid to the Government to access Getting Building Fund money

August 2020 – The now-defunct KBC secures £3m from the Getting Building Fund, administered by SEMLEP

September 2020 – A multi-disciplinary project team including an architectural specialist expands on the initial design ideas with ‘must haves’

October 2020 – Planning application relating to external build is submitted. Key stakeholder engagement begins

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January 2021 – Planning permission is approved. Of the £3m grant and further £640,000 from KBC reserves and £300,000 from NCC, a total of £867,000 is earmarked for internal refurbishment of the library, another £300,000 on a new roof. £1.6m is to be spent on the extension to the art gallery with another £163,000 spent on an internal renovation

February 2021 – Trees are felled and relocated to make way for the building work

April 2021 – NCC and KBC cease to exist with North Northants Council taking on their place in the project

May 2021 – Design completed. Library closes temporarily and art treasures put into storage off-site

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July 2021 – Construction begins and is scheduled to take 12 months.

March 2022 – The library partially re-opens to public – GLaM name dropped and replaced with ‘Cornerstone’ causing uproar. Councillors release a further £75,000 from the NNC's capital funds because the scheme is running over-budget

July 2022 – Another £412,000 is released by NNC to ensure the project continues – ‘soft opening’ of Cornerstone planned for January 2023

February 2023 – Cornerstone signs goes up but no opening

August 2023 – NNC meeting of Place and Environment Scrutiny Committee presentation.

August 2023 – Full council meeting guillotined before motion concerning Cornerstone can be debated