England's oldest dedicated arts centre getting a major revamp

Bridgwater Arts Centre on Castle Street in Bridgwater
Bridgwater Arts Centre on Castle Street in Bridgwater -Credit:Google Maps

More than £700,000 will be invested in England's oldest dedicated arts centre following a crucial decision by Somerset Council. Bridgwater is one of 101 towns across the UK, and one of only two in Somerset, to receive funding from the government's towns fund to deliver major regeneration projects designed to revitalise and future-proof the town centre.

A total of £23.2m has been provided by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) to be divided across 11 projects, designed to encourage businesses, protect properties from flooding, improve Bridgwater's cultural offer and reduce congestion to and from the town. Plans were submitted in December 2023 to upgrade the Bridgwater Arts Centre at 11-13 Castle Street to make the venue more accessible for visitors.

Somerset Council has now approved these proposals, meaning Bridgwater Town Council can begin work on the improvements later in the summer. The arts centre building, which is grade one listed, was built in the 1720s and was extended in 1919 by adding a billiard hall, which was later converted into a theatre space.

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Its current use dates back to 1946, when the arts centre was founded on this site by the Arts Council. The town council's proposals are designed to future-proof the historic building, making numerous internal alterations to make it more accessible and ensure it can be adequately maintained in the coming decades.

Specifically, a new ramp will be fitted onto Castle Street to improve wheelchair access, along with additional soundproofing, new lighting and sound equipment, and more versatile gallery and exhibition spaces. An additional 25 sq m of internal floor space will be added, which will be used for store chairs and other theatre equipment when they are not required for events or performances.

A spokesman for Philip Hughes Associates (representing the town council) said: "The alterations to the arts centre are relatively modest in nature but will provide significant improvement in the ability of the arts centre to properly utilise the building, to allow better access for all, and to provide improved facilities for building users and visitors. The proposals have been considered to ensure that minimal damage to the historic fabric of the building is caused.

"The improvements proposed can be seen to be beneficial to the arts centre by allowing for un-used and under-utilised spaces to be brought into use, which will increase the ability of the venue to offer facilities and resources to the local and wider community." A total of £700,000 from the Bridgwater town deal will be spent on the project, along with £66,800 from the town council and £22,438 being provided from the arts centre's own funds.

The decision to grant planning permission was taken through the delegated powers of the council's planning officers, rather than a public decision by its planning committee north (which makes decisions on significant applications within the former Sedgemoor area).

Bridgwater town clerk David Mears
Bridgwater town clerk David Mears -Credit:Daniel Mumby

Planning officer Amelia Elvé said: "The proposal is of an acceptable design and appearance that would have no adverse impact on the character of the existing building or the locality, residential amenity, historic environment, ecology or highways safety."

Town clerk David Mears indicated in October 2023 (shortly before the plans were formally submitted) that the project would take "about six months to complete" once permission had been granted.