Why has Derby’s famous Assembly Rooms building stood empty for almost 10 years?

Derby's Assembly Rooms building has stood empty since a dramatic fire in 2014.Derby's Assembly Rooms building has stood empty since a dramatic fire in 2014.
Derby's Assembly Rooms building has stood empty since a dramatic fire in 2014.
New inquiry to ask why Assembly Rooms has stood empty for nearly 10 years

A new council-led investigation will explore the reasons why Derby’s famous Assembly Rooms building has stood derelict for almost a decade now.

According to a new report, Derby City Council’s regeneration scrutiny board have agreed to take a deep dive into the famous Market Place site over the coming months. It has been left empty since a dramatic fire broke out at its rooftop car park in 2014.

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Currently, the council’s position on the site is to demolish the building and replace with it a new theatre, which would become the new home of Derby Theatre. This is known as Project Assemble. But the huge potential costs surrounding the project mixed with the council’s struggling financial picture leaves lots of questions to be asked about the project.

The plans appeared to move a huge step forward earlier this year when it was announced the Government had allocated £20million of Levelling Up money to the project.

However, since taking over the leadership of the council earlier this year, Labour council leader Baggy Shanker has voiced concerns about the project and said the authority would need to find many more millions for Project Assemble to work.

But the Assembly Rooms saga has swivelled through different directions over the years. Previously, plans were announced to refurbish and enhance the building for around £24million. But it was later revealed costs had increased to around £30m which made it no longer viable to refurbish.

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In 2020, Derby City Council proposed to put a new performance venue in Becketwell and demolish the Assembly rooms. Building work for the new Becketwell Performance Arena has started. In 2021 a new plan emerged to deliver Project Assemble and bring a new performance venue to the Market Place site.

In June, councillors on the council’s regeneration scrutiny board agreed to do a “topic review” on the Project Assemble development.

The topic review aims to do the following things:

  • Examine what have been the challenges preventing re-development of the site over the last 10 years.
  • Why was the project changed from a new build to refurbishment and back again.
  • What are the requirements of the Levelling Up Fund (LUF) money awarded.
  • (Explore the) future development of the site.

It will also “look at the challenges preventing re-development of the site and in general the barriers to delivering regeneration projects and/or build improvements or affordable housing in Derby”.

Councillor Shanker told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that there would be an update on Project Assemble during the summer – but no further announcements have yet been made. But the council is expected to provide an update in due course – however, when that will be is uncertain.

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According to the authority’s latest Forward Plan document, a new report will be published giving a progress update on plans for the “Cultural Heart of the city, including the Assembly Rooms site”. It will detail identified work needed to complete the feasibility phase and an outline business case. A planning application has been approved to demolish the building.

When asked about the Assembly Rooms on his first day as council leader in May, Cllr Shanker said: “On the day (the Government’s Levelling Up allocation) was announced when there were photos being taken I urged caution. £20 million will not cut it to replace the Assembly Rooms. £20 million is probably a fraction of what is needed. In my view it was the wrong bid to put in.”

It is hoped a draft report of the topic review will be published in the new year with recommendations and a final report to the council’s cabinet in March.

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