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Saturday 2 November 2013

Jumbo's conversion plans rejected and that's good for Colchester

George Braithwaite speaking to BBC Look East
The Colchester Gazette live-blog of the Colchester Borough Council planning meeting reports the proposal by the owner of Colchester's iconic 'Jumbo' water tower to convert it into flats and offices was rejected after a passionate debate. The BBC website also carried the story with quotes from both sides. The owner George Braithwaite and other commentators said afterwards the decision was a political one.

While BWTAS itself takes no position for or against water tower conversion per se, it exists to ensure the discussion of such proposals are fully informed about the heritage and cultural value of water towers, therefore I am exerting my privilege to comment on the latest developments in Jumbo's long and complex history.

The vote went along political lines with the three Conservative councillors on the planning committee all voting in support of the plan and the seven Lib-Dem, Independent and Labour councillors against. According to the Gazette, Colchester MP Sir Bob Russell contacted the council's chief executive Adrian Pritchard suggesting the Conservative councillors should have declared an interest because of a donation made by George Braithwaite to the North Essex Conservative Association. BWTAS noticed a 'Vote Conservative' banner was hung from Jumbo in 2010. 

That is a useful example of the enormous value of water towers for their owners and their potential to impact their surroundings. If politics played any part in the decision, then perhaps Braitwaite only brought that on himself.  

I have found two videos produced by a local 'political activist' Darius Laws and his associate Ben Locker. According to the Gazette, Darius is a Conservative and Ben says he is one too, though one can tell from his wearing of red trousers

Darius said if Braithwaite’s plans are opposed it would lead to “decades more neglect and decay and a lost opportunity to provide economic growth and enhancement for our town centre.” 

In their YouTube video posted on Oct 27, 2013 (though the date of production is not known) Darius and Ben took to the streets of Colchester to drum up support for Braithwaite's plans saying it would bring "a restaurant in the sky" and also a museum while the flats and offices are the necessary commercial exploitation of Jumbo in order to preserve it. 

Though I am not a heritage expert, as the author of a successful guide to water towers and the editor of this blog and as I have corresponded with hundreds of water tower enthusiasts, owners and developers over the years, I have the evidence that water towers have enormous power as attractions and there is great national and international interest in their heritage value.

The argument Ben and Darius posited on the streets has logic similar to US policy in the Vietnam War: "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it" said an unattributed US commander after bombing and shelling the town of Bến Tre into oblivion to rout the Vietcong.

It's very doubtful whether Colchester needs another restaurant near to Jumbo and whether the benefit is worth vandalism of a Grade II* listed structure. Restaurants are extremely risky financially and there are no guarantees that a museum or the restaurant would be viable enough to create a net growth in jobs. If a restaurant at the top of Jumbo was hugely successful, that itself might cause another local restaurant to close because of the mechanism of competitive capitalism that Conservative dogma expounds as beneficial.

Local residents who have replied to the proposals on the planning website object to the additional traffic, noise and light pollution this kind of conversion would cause. The planning policy for Colchester said Jumbo was in an area reserved for cultural facilities long before Braithwaite plunked down £330,000 to buy it.

This policy is described as ‘a key tool’ in the determination of planning applications.'Save Jumbo' campaigner Brian Light of the Balkerne Tower Trust pointed out at the planning meeting; "flats and offices are not cultural facilities and would transform the present cultural oasis into a busy and noisy commercial area. At night, four huge glowing panels would be seen, unconnected to each other or to the shape of the original building."

Ben has claimed on his blog there is "no other funded, viable plan on the table."

Ahem, nothing of Braithwaite's proposals were in the public domain until 24 hours before the planning meeting. Were Ben and Darius were privy to them, though they claim to be working entirely independently of Braithwaite? Long before Braithwaite bought Jumbo there were other proposals and studies done. The most developed proposal came from the Balkerne Tower Trust who were an unsuccessful bidder when Jumbo was sold at a snap auction in February 2006. It is not the fault of the council or anybody else but Jumbo's succession of owners that Jumbo has been neglected while they played pass the parcel with a very speculative investment.

It is perhaps the fault of government policy (incidentally a Conservative one then) that ratepayers' assets can be sold on the open market to people with no plans to use them except the hope they can find some way to make a profit. 

None of Jumbo's owners have been prepared to entertain offers to put Jumbo to a use that would protect and preserve it for generations to come while their Jumbo property bubble grew. Darius and Ben's assertion that Jumbo has lain unused is untrue. It was utilised as a 'prayer tower' by an evangelical church from 1988 to 1995 who purchased it from Anglian Water. They then sold it at a loss to a property developer. Perhaps a portent of the danger ahead.

Several members of BWTAS recognised Braithwaite’s last minute museum proposal as an empty promise with no guarantees that it could be delivered if the plans were approved. It distinctly smells of the oft-used ruse of public use to satisfy objectors which could be rescinded for any number of reasons later on. Were it a serious proposal, the last six years should have been spent developing a consortium of heritage partners to put together a solid proposal to the planning committee rather than offering up a few figures plucked from the air by the architect.

It's impossible to say if any cultural or heritage bodies would support the Balkerne Tower Trust in taking on Jumbo because no one has ever been offered possession of Jumbo on anything like viable and reasonable terms. In his three minutes at the microphone at the planning meeting Brian Light pointed out the idiocy of the trust being invited to set up the museum and have their volunteers to staff it and pay over £3000 pounds a month rent for the mere three months it would be open a year. "Meanwhile the applicant will collect the admission charges and £500 a time for frequent ‘corporate events’. As a charity we don’t wish – and could not – subsidise a privately owned museum over which we have no control, and which could close at any time" he said.

Councillor Nick Barlow who opposed the plan has also stated on his twitter feed that this "public access (was) an afterthought and not guaranteed permanently."

Andrew Erskine, a cultural and creative economy consultant to the public and private sector also said on his twitter feed; "Personally feel this should be a public asset first. Not suitable to turn into flats etc."

The business plan, like any, is full of suppositions. It imagines an observatory and display above an office block and flats can draw the same visitor numbers as the Colchester Natural History museum year on year. It should be noted that the museum is free to enter while the proposed average entry for Jumbo is £3, so it would be higher for some and less for others. I would think £30,000 for exhibits is woefully insufficient and there is no mention of the costs of the observatory. Brian Light noted that Braithwaite's agent claimed "there is no public interest in the history, only in the views". That history is what the Balkerne Tower Trust and BWTAS exist to celebrate.

Braithwaite’s conversion plan offers nothing innovative or creative that exploits the assets of Jumbo to make it a truly outstanding and UNIQUE attraction. His plans would just make Jumbo just another converted water tower. His business plan should consider the number of visitors to the Atlas Works or the Foredown tower in Sussex for a better comparison. I don't think even I would pay £5 to go into Jumbo more than once just to gawp at the rooftops of Colchester and see some old photographs and visit yet another overpriced museum gift shop and sandwich bar. Would having a look through a telescope be yet another £1 for 3 minutes? I can imagine the annoyance of parents at such Barnum antics. Were it not the need for Braithwaite to salvage his reckless investment, there would no need to set the bar so high.

Darius (and Ben presumably) said Jumbo could be Colchester's Eiffel Tower but the economic benefits offered is Colchester gets its own Canary Wharf without any public money required. Does Colchester really need that? If I recall the developer of Canary Wharf went bust spectacularly. It then got bailed out by billions in public investment for the transport infrastructure it lacked.

I sincerely wish that the Eiffel Tower concept proves to be the case but that can only happen if Jumbo is kept intact and visitors encounter knowledgeable guides along with displays inside the tank that bring the history of civil engineering and water supply to life, with the added attraction of viewing Colchester from a spectacular viewpoint. 

With income from the occasional charity fundraising abseil or corporate event, a heritage operator would could cover the cost of maintenance. As an office building with an observatory it will be an awful compromise and a much duller attraction. The need to recoup the exponentially higher costs of redevelopment will put pressure on the owner to maximise their revenue, so slowly squeezing out the 'heritage' uses. Braithwaite's cobbled together museum is set to fail and some might speculate that it is deliberate.

While the restoration of Jumbo would initially be expensive because of the years of neglect it is not completely a lost cause to find funding for that, perhaps meeting a corporate social responsibility remit, and once Jumbo is brought back to health, ongoing maintenance could be within the means of a charitable trust offering tours of the intact tower. Without planning permission the value of Jumbo was assessed at £0.00 so a heritage operator could never secure a mortgage for £330,000 to buy out Braithwaite AND cover the cost of restoration against the value of Jumbo.

The uses that the Balkerne trust have proposed for Jumbo make it a very good neighbour for local residents, businesses and nearby cultural attractions and they will improve foot-fall and 'dwell' time of visitors to Colchester's cultural and heritage quarter whereas Mr Braithwaite's plans bring conflict and nuisance with increased noise, traffic, light pollution and commercial competition for nearby cafes, of which there are plenty enough. The difference in the carbon impact of wholly heritage use and Mr Braithwaite’s are significant as well especially in the conversion stage.

It is to the credit of Colchester's planning committee that they refused to acquiesce to a developer whose supporters cite the deliberate dilapidation as a just cause to allow further vandalism of Jumbo. Had they gone on the web, any developer who wanted to take on Jumbo would know full well it was a complex and difficult proposition offering very few options for adaptive reuse EXCEPT for the long standing ambition of the Balkerne Tower Trust. Interviewed shortly after his purchase, Braithwaite said he did not know anything about Jumbo or its history - he just liked it. Colchester should not be held hostage to a developer's folly. 

Nat Bocking
Gen. Sec. BWTAS

p.s. I would be happy to link to or post a response or make corrections required.


Unknown said...

Response from Darius-

I've never met the owner of Jumbo nor had a conversation with him.

The MP for Colchester, a Lib Dem, has long opposed anything happening to Jumbo - way before I hung a Vote Conservative banner on it. Subsequent suggestions of any wrong doing / conflict of interests have been chucked out.

With regards to some of your points:

"Noise pollution"

Are you kidding me, it's in the town centre near an Irish bar with a beer garden and a Yatess bar.

"Light pollution"

Again it's in the town centre as I think seeing Jumbo lit at night esp from the train station would be a good thing.

As for so called increased traffic, currently Jumbo's grounds are seemingly a free for all car park. And given locale
Next to theatre, several pubs and Italian restaurants I don't particularly see being a vibrant lively area to be a problem.

As for negative affect on nearby restaurants is believe the opposite to be true. A restaurant in Jumbo would be so popular that over subscription would no doubt mean people seeking to go elsewhere within locale.

And as you would expect me to say - let the market decide.

Jumbo is redundant of use, glass in legs is a compromise worth taking in order to breathe life back into the building with public benefits!

Nat Bocking said...

Darius, Have you seen
blogs and

brilight said...

There's a vital element thing missing from Mr Laws' cardboard cutout Jumbo - a 'Vote Conservative' banner.

Now he admits that he was responsible for that on the real Jumbo, yet joins owner George Braithwaite in complaining of a 'political' decision by the planning committee.

Anyone who was there could see that the planning committee debated the application purely on the pros and cons. Darius knows this - he was filming the debate. His side lost he argument. He could make a useful contribution by persuading Jumbo's owner to tidy the site, remove weeds growing from the brickwork and stop cars parking untidily on Jumbo land in this Conservation Area.

Quink said...

Interesting post Nat. I've posted a response on my own blog, here:

Unknown said...

Dear "Brilight"

A vote conservative banner on Jumbo occurred long after our MP raised issue of Jumbo's future in Parliament - to which I believe he was reminded sometimes best ways to take a building forward is not fossiling but to modestly adapt. only today I walked by the Tate in London looking up to its glass roof extension.

I wasn't even at secondary school when Jumbo was sold off from public ownership, wasn't our current MP the mayor at roughly same time?

If the BTT had been flexible and worked with community minded folk of all political persuasions we might have had a better outcome.

We all love Jumbo but denying access and condemning Jumbo to years of stagnation isn't fair.

Unknown said...

Darius Laws - the shoe-less - states:
"Noise pollution"

Are you kidding me, it's in the town centre near an Irish bar with a beer garden and a Yatess bar.


"Light pollution"

Again it's in the town centre as I think seeing Jumbo lit at night esp from the train station would be a good thing.


Keep taking your medication in the hopes that it will instill some sense into your somewhat empty head.

Unknown said...

Hi Robert,

Lets try debate this serious matter sensibly with me without getting silly.

I dont believe an increased level of noise and light isn't necessary a bad thing within an urban centre because on balance I'd rather see economic activity and 'vibrancy' as opposed to rot, inaccessibility and decay.

The point about lighting up Jumbo is people travelling through Colchester at night might take more of an interest in our town (and Jumbo) if they can see it.

If I'm wrong on this why are many landmark buildings, underpasses and bridges lit up in London with a range of colourful lights every night ?

brilight said...

The refused scheme would NOT have seen Jumbo 'lit up' at night. Instead, four huge illuminated panels would be seen, unrelated to each other or to Jumbo's actual shape.

Just imagine though, the existing Jumbo floodlit. Now THAT would be truly a matter of pride for the town.