So the decision is now in. Jumbo, Colchester’s iconic water tower, will not be converted into flats, offices, a restaurant and a museum with a viewing platform.
Why? Because the Colchester Borough Council Planning committee turned it down, seven votes to three.
The seven were all members of our ruling Lib-Dem, Labour and Independent Coalition.
The three who voted for the plans were all Tories.
Who said planning shouldn’t be political?
What galls me about the decision is the way that it reinforces the message that Colchester is closed for business.
Jumbo’s developer had an initial application turned down en bloc by Coalition politicians in 2011.
He didn’t appeal. He went away, revised his plans so they would give greater benefit to the community, and then came back.
Only for the same Coalition of the Unwilling to turn down the plans. Despite Jumbo standing idle for 27 years and despite no other funded, viable plan being on the table.
The message is clear: if you dare to risk enterprise in Colchester, you can take a running jump.
Why turn it down?
One particularly irritating side to the Coalition councillors’ decision is the fact that Colchester people were, on the whole, right behind the plans to create a revitalised Jumbo.
A poll in the Gazette revealed 80% support for the plans.
When I talked to many dozens of shoppers in town, I met only one person who was against the proposal.
The letters to the planning committee in support of the proposals outnumbered those sent in by the naysayers.
But the plans were dismissed. Why?
It’s only political if you’re a Tory
In the last day, my friend Darius Laws have been accused of politicising the issue because we are a) Tories and b) wanted the decision to go the other way.
Yet although our MP has been very busy behind the scenes, doing all he can to scupper the plans, we have been repeatedly told we are unfair to criticise him.
Unfair to criticise him for writing smearing letters, incorrectly asserting Conservative councillors on the planning committee should declare an interest.
Unfair to criticise him for his own conflict of interest, because he also happens to be patron of Balkerne Tower Trust, a charity that wants to preserve Jumbo – but has raised less than 1% of the capital needed to do it.
Well, I don’t accept that. I think it’s fair to criticise him on both scores. And I also believe that while he remains our MP, we can kiss goodbye to all prospect of drawing in enterprise and investment in our town.
And we’ll be the poorer for it.
Despite decaying genteelly for upwards of a quarter century, a handful of local creatives have now decided they wish to create new plans for Jumbo’s future.
I wish them luck, but they will need to surmount huge hurdles. They don’t own the building. It will cost well over a million pounds to restore it to a shipshape condition. And I can’t think of a social enterprise that could use Jumbo to raise the money needed for even its annual upkeep – especially when the combined income from the flats, offices and restaurant would have taken a decade to turn a profit.
The beauty of the Jumbo plan as it was presented was that it would draw people into the area, creating conditions for social and commercial enterprise to flourish better. And there was money on the table – £4m of it.
By attempting to devise a social enterprise that will generate enough income to keep Jumbo intact, I think we are about to prove – with a thud – that good intentions won’t work in every context. Especially if they’re unfunded.
And in the meantime we can look forward to years more of a rotting icon. A crumbling memorial to our MP and our current council.
Let’s hope the owner appeals and wins. I won’t even begrudge him the small fortune in taxpayers’ cash that our Coalition councillors will have cost us.