Jumbo: a response to the British Water Tower Appreciation Society

jumbo_april_2013Who would have thought it?

In a new blog post, the British Water Tower Appreciation Society says it’s glad that the owner of Jumbo, Colchester’s Victorian water tower, has been refused permission to transform it into a restaurant, flats, offices and museum.

Why? In a nutshell, says General Secretary, Nat Bocking:

Colchester should not be held hostage to a developer’s folly.

Yes, it’s the well-worn canard of the evil developer holding a community to ransom so he can line his own pockets.

The only problem is that it’s nonsense. Let’s deal with Nat’s points and arguments one by one.

Politicising planning decision okay (if you’ve brought it on yourself)

Firstly, Nat explains that the planning committee voted against (or for) the development on party political lines.

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.

That much is true, as is Nat’s report that Bob Russell attempted to interfere in the process by writing to Colchester Borough Council CEO, Adrian Pritchard, demanding that:

…the Conservative councillors should have declared an interest because of a donation made by George Braithwaite to the North Essex Conservative Association.

Nat fails to mention that the Council’s Monitoring Officer, Andrew Weavers, dismissed Russell’s attempt to play politics with the planning process by ruling that Conservative councillors had no interest to declare.

What Nat does say, though, is

If politics played any part in the decision, then perhaps [owner] Braithwaite only brought that on himself.

Which is  staggering. What he’s essentially saying is that, if councillors undermine planning by bringing party politics into the decision making process, then that injustice is perfectly okay – if you, as the applicant, have brought it on yourself.

That’s unacceptable.

Evil Tories (again)

Next, Nat draws attention to two videos in which fellow activist Darius Laws and myself campaign for turning Jumbo into a ‘restaurant in the sky’.

It must be said, he does reveal a wicked sense of humour.

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.

I can’t deny the trousers. But what Nat is really up to is ascribing party political actions to our campaign, hinting we are somehow in cahoots with Jumbo’s owner. As he says later on:

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?
Here I need to set the record straight. I’m sure the naysayers will heap scorn on what I’m about to say, but I give my word on the truth of each point.
  1. Neither Darius nor myself have ever met or spoken with Jumbo’s owner.
  2. While we were vocal among fellow Tories about our desire to see the plans approved, it certainly wasn’t a group policy. Neither of us even asked whether the Conservatives on the planning committee were minded to approve or reject the plans. Indeed, we were worried that some of those councillors might even reject the plans.
  3. Neither of us were privy to any information about Jumbo, other than what we found in the public domain.
  4. Both of us passionately believed the plans would help transform Colchester – and we both still do.

But to answer Nat’s point, it has been no secret that Braithwaite has planned to plough millions of pounds into developing Jumbo. In my eyes, that makes it a funded, viable plan.

In contrast, the plans for Jumbo drawn up by the Balkerne Tower Trust (Patron: Bob Russell, MP) are unrealistic given the charity’s fundraising efforts to date. These is the organisation’s balance sheet for the last five years:

Financial year end (FYE) Income Spending
28 Feb 2013 £513 £13
28 Feb 2012 £1,158 £14
28 Feb 2011 £89 £15
28 Feb 2010 £3,076 £4,933
28 Feb 2009 £2,500 £0
Totals: £7,336 £4,975

That leaves £2,391. That’s not going to buy very many bricks, let alone restore Jumbo to it former glory.

All the time in the world

Nat falls into the camp of people who thinks we’ve got all the time in the world to create a better plan for Jumbo’s future.

And in making his point, he does correctly bring me up on a point of fact. While it was my understanding that Jumbo has lain empty since it was sold off by Anglian Water in 1987, Nat sets the record straight by pointing out that:

[Jumbo] 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.

Even so, Jumbo has now been unused for 18 years, and no-one has yet come up with a costed, funded, viable plan to restore it exclusively for community use. And during all this time, according to the report commissioned by the Balkerne Tower Trust itself, the building has been decaying.

We don’t have all the time in the world. We’ve taken it – and we haven’t progressed any further. Unlike Jumbo’s owner, who devised a sensible, costed plan that took into account the objections made by the planning committee when they first turned down the scheme.

Free building anyone?

Nat, however, does identify one major sticking point for Jumbo’s future. Now that the Council’s planning committee has repeatedly set its face against officers’ recommendations, refusing to let the building be converted by a private entrepreneur, Jumbo’s value has plummeted.

Owner George Braithwaite bought the building in 2006 for £330,000. The Balkerne Tower Trust failed to raise enough money to outbid him. But now, as Nat says:

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.

So what’s the answer? That Braithwaite should just give the building away?

That’s not just unacceptable. It’s deeply unfair.

A building that pays for itself?

But assuming the Balkerne Tower Trust (or any other organisation) got its hands on the building, would it really be able to generate the income needed for its long term upkeep? I sincerely doubt it.

Nat disagrees, saying:

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.

Oh yes? According to the report commissioned by the Balkerne Tower Trust, the cheapest option for restoration would make the following plan possible.

Public access would consist of tours starting at hourly intervals, escorted by  Colchester Blue Badge Guides. Tours would have a maximum of 10 visitors (a limited set by fire regulations), and would last 45 to 50 minutes. Two Colchester Blue Badge Guides would be on duty; one conducting the tour and the other at Jumbo’s entrance to welcome those on the following tour and act as support. Five or six tours would
operate each day during the Summer Season (anticipated to be April to September inclusive).

Let’s assume that six tours operate every single day from 1st April to 30th September. That’s 183 days – or a maximum of 10,980 visitors per year.

If each visitor paid £5, that would result in income of £54,540. According to this link, Blue Badge Guides earn an average of £168 per day.

So to pay for two Blue Badge Guides over 183 days at a total of £336 per day, the Trust would need to shell out £61,488.

Oh.

Even if the entrance fee were raised to £10 per person, bringing in a total £109,080, the Trust would only have £47,592 left after paying for the guides.

But would it really manage to sell every single tour space on every day? I doubt it. As Nat says about Braithwaite’s proposals for a museum:

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.

In the same way, I’m not sure that many people would pay £10 more than once to have a Blue Badge tour of the building. It’s not a sustainable plan for the building, even with the income from charity abseils and corporate events that Nat proposes.

So where now?

Much as I love the idea that Jumbo could become a social enterprise and pay for its own upkeep, I sincerely don’t believe it’s possible.

In rejecting the plans to turn Jumbo into flats, offices, a restaurant and a museum, I think Colchester’s planning committee has done the town a grave disservice. As English Heritage said in response to the plans:

Only if your Council concludes that the proposed scheme provides the only practical means of securing the tower’s future should it approve these applications. On the other hand if it concludes that this is not the case and the applications should be refused, it should commit itself to securing the future of the tower by promoting an alternative approach.

So, has the Council committed itself to securing the future of the tower by promoting an alternative approach?

I wouldn’t hold your breath.

While the developer’s plans may have altered Jumbo’s fabric for the worse (and I dispute this), turning them down has done no favours for the fabric of our town. What could have been a superb attraction, bringing visitors into the town and giving our local economy a major boost, will – once again – become the white elephant we’ve seen crumble for decades past.

An outcome worth playing political games for?

You decide.

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