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Wednesday 23 October 2013

Jumbo plans recommended for approval by council officers

By Caroline Tilley

CONTROVERSIAL plans to transform Colchester’s water tower should be given the thumbs up, according to planning officers.

Colchester Council officers have said the proposals for Jumbo should be approved despite fierce opposition.

They say the plans would revamp Jumbo, bring in shoppers and give the building a viable use.

But the final decision will be down to the council’s planning committee when it meets next Thursday.

Owner George Braithwaite wants to create three apartments, a restaurant and a museum and observatory with a cafe in the Grade II listed building.

English Heritage has opposed the plans, as have a number of others, saying it would “radically change” the water tower.

Colchester Council’s planning committee at will meet at 6pm on Thursday, October 31, at Colchester Town Hall.

Response by Nat Bocking, General Secretary of BWTAS.

Amongst BWTAS members there is likely to be found a wide variety of opinion on the merits of redevelopment of water towers, therefore BWTAS does not endorse nor either protest at these proposals. 

However, it is plain in this report that only one aspect of this plan is by any means 'concrete', in that the developer will convert Jumbo into three apartments. The occupancy and usage of any remaining space is not assured. There is no guarantee any allocated space will be suitable or the rent required will be affordable for a restaurant (which are notoriously unstable tenants) or a museum and observatory  (which are even less financially viable) to occupy the water tower.

While we do not in any way suggest that it would happen here, there have been numerous cases of redevelopment by stealth. Appeasement of planners by providing a community space in a development has been wriggled out of by imposing restrictive conditions until the users rights are eventually relinquished.

Were this application from a consortium of partners made of the developer and heritage bodies, more people in BWTAS could be enthusiastic rather than pessimistic.

To our knowledge there have been no proposals from any heritage groups to create a museum inside Jumbo except one which wants to keep Jumbo intact, as the intact and restored Jumbo itself would be their most prized exhibit. This group's business plan is long standing and judged viable, were it not for the burden of the asking price of a series of owners trying to recover their reckless speculative investment. The first one picked up the redundant property for £100,000 and apparently sold it on at a loss for £86,000 but Jumbo has been a growing investment bubble ever since.

Jumbo is without question the finest example of its type and it represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to preserve an example from a golden age of civil engineering. Kept intact Jumbo can be a resource for a great number of useful purposes which accord with its neighbours and community stakeholders at a serviceable cost. Its usefulness and accordance with every aspect of its surroundings would be greatly diminished by an unsympathetic and excessive conversion.

The business model of a developer is of no concern to a planner except when development grants are concerned but on a project of this scale it cannot be ignored. This latest proposal for conversion has no guarantees that Jumbo will be put into sustainable use and so benefit Colchester. Allowing conversion to that extent closes the door forever on another use originally proposed which could sustain Jumbo intact. If that plan failed, it would still allow many alternatives to be considered.

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