I’ve never really been interested in politics. I have my political views, which are pretty much down the centre, and have always ended up feeling somewhat let down by whatever party is running the country. So much so that voting at elections, whether general elections or local council elections, has always been something of a chore for me. At least that is how I felt for the last twenty years while I was living in Wivenhoe.
All that started to change recently when I moved back to Colchester to live within a stone’s throw of the town centre. Over the previous twenty years my visits to the town had mainly been for shopping on a Saturday, lunch, or a rare night out, none of which really exposed me to the reality of how much Colchester has changed. And boy has it changed! And in many ways, in my opinion, not for the better.
There are acres and acres of new homes being built, but little in the way of infrastructure for all the new residents. The town’s roads are at bursting point, though I have to say that the Northern Approaches is a godsend for getting in and out of the north of the town, well except for the nightmare between ASDA and Avenue of Remembrance.
This is the town that people once flocked to for its shopping facilities. The town with Lion Walk Precinct, Williams & Griffins, an historic market and the country’s flagship Marks & Spencer store at the time of its reopening after it was extended in the 1970’s. Parking was ample and affordable. People used to come from all over, Ipswich, Chelmsford, Braintree, Witham etc to shop in our town. But not any more. Even people who live here don’t want to shop in Colcheter.
In recent years our neighbouring towns have raised their game. Chelmsford town centre, a once drab grey 1960’s planner’s creation where my grandparents brought up their children and from which they all fled, has been transformed and is now a vibrant city centre with a pedestrianised high street that hosts market stalls, and organised street entertainment. The city also attracts major employers. Colchester can't pull that one off these days. Braintree raised its game when it gave Freeport the go-ahead, attracting shoppers from miles around. Factor in too the continued growth of Lakeside, the opening of Bluewater, the ease of accessibility of Stratford’s Westfield and what does Colchester have to compete? The dated Lion Walk and Culver Square, Tollgate struggling under the volume of people trying to find somewhere to park to buy white goods and carpets, and Turner Rise for the outdoors lifestyle, Iceland and a few bargains.
We had an opportunity with Tollgate to swing the balance back in Colchester’s direction. Tollgate Village, planned for the outskirts of the town, just off the busy A12, promised retail, restaurants and a new out of town cinema. Just the kind of attraction this town needs for its growing population and to attract people from the surrounding area, including neighbouring towns, to come and spend their money in our local economy. Not forgetting creating 1000 or so new jobs. Colchester would have become a shopping and leisure destination instead of just a declining market town. Declining? Yes. The town centre is in a sorry state with its countless empty shop units, and other businesses still closing, including the other day the successful Café Rouge restaurant due to high rents. There's a sea of charity shops and an ocean of casinos and nail bars, and never mind Queen Street/St Botolph’s lawless ‘Kebab Alley’ where at night there are kebab shops and takeaways, fist fights and serious assaults aplenty.
Colchester is in such a sorry state that the town is actually excited about the prospect of British Home Stores being replaced by Primark. Yes really. It's got that bad.
So with the golden opportunity of Tollgate Village handed to the town on a plate what did Colchester Borough Council do? There was a planning meeting and the plan was passed. But, as this went against the recommendation from the borough planner, it went to a second meeting, for which the ruling administration pulled out all the stops to ensure that the plan got killed. They told tales of woe with their predicted figures of how much trade Tollgate Village would take from the town centre, all guesswork of course. There was talk of town centre stagnation and displays with ‘Stagnation’ written on them for all to see throughout the meeting; a letter from Fenwick’s (owners of Williams & Griffin) solicitors basically wanting their investment protected; and talk of the town’s Vineyard Gate development never happening. That’s right, the Vineyard Gate development that was going to transform the Vineyard Street/Queen Street/Osbourne Street area of town that we have been waiting eight years for and gets scaled down every time the council mentions it. Well guess what, it’s NEVER going to happen!
And of course, as you probably know by now, at this second meeting, in which two councillors who voted for the plan at the first meeting were replaced with two who voted against it, the plan for Tollgate Village was thrown out. All on the recommendation of an unelected planning officer, and eight councillors who refuse to listen to the people they represent.
And why? Well one can only guess, but it all stinks of the council wanting to protect its OWN Northern Gateway scheme to the north of the town near Colchester United’s Weston Homes stadium. No talk last night though of how much trade THAT scheme will take from the town centre, or consideration of how the two schemes could co-exist to make Colchester the region’s leading retail and leisure destination and actually have the knock on effect of encouraging people to also visit the town centre to spend their money. And don't even start me about the tourism money we lose out on every year because this council can't get it's act together and capitalise on the town's unique history to pull people in from far and wide like York does. Hear this CBC, it's not all about the bloody castle you know! The councillors stuck two fingers up at the people they represent who were overwhelming in favour of the scheme, and made that known on the Gazette newspaper's live poll last night.
The councillors who, instead of having a plan for the town centre to help it evolve and find its place on the 21st century try to 'protect' it by killing any competition... except from their own scheme of course.
If you are as angry about what they have done as I am then email them and tell them why you are angry. And send them packing in the May local council elections.
And sign the petition HERE
I’m so angry I'd seriously considering running for a seat on the council just to try to do my bit from within to make this town a place to be proud to live once again.