» Colchester ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Just to let you know that Colchester Council’s 2014 Trees For Years giveaway will be taking place on Saturday February 1st from 10am at Rowan House. Borough residents and community groups will be able to get free trees and shrubs from a variety of different species to help green the borough a little more. For more information, click here.

As you may have heard by now, Colchester Borough Council’s Planning Committee voted last night to reject the latest proposal for Jumbo. I was at the meeting and spoke against the plans, so I’m glad the committee agreed with me, but I thought I would expand on my views here.

Firstly, I would recommend reading this blog post by architect Hana Loftus on the proposals, which sets out some very good arguments against them.

We always have to be careful about falling into what Yes, Minister called the politician’s fallacy: Something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done. I think everyone agrees that we’d like to see a new use for Jumbo, especially one that opens up the water tank and belvedere as a public space, but that doesn’t mean that any plan that does that in some way is necessarily a good one. My problem with this proposal was that the public access and usage that was proposed seemed very much an afterthought, and was not the centrepiece of the scheme.

As proposed, the scheme would have glazed the arches between the legs, allowing the open space there to be filled in with offices, apartments and a restaurant, while the tank would have been converted into a museum space. The problem for me is that while the application talked about creating a restaurant and museum, there was very little detail on what they would be, and what detail there was wasn’t very convincing. To quote from English Heritage’s response to the proposals:

If the establishment of a museum is to be regarded as a public benefit, It must be more thoroughly defined than this, and it must be secured by legally enforceable means.

However, instead of detailed plans about what could go into the space and information about groups and people who’d be interested in running the museum space, there were only vague promises and a sketchy business plan based on assumptions that hadn’t been scrutinised or challenged. Further to that, the application was only guaranteeing 90 days public access a year to that space and the space itself would not become a public or charitable asset, instead remaining in the possession of the owner of the building. If the plans had been approved last night, there would have been nothing to stop a future owner of Jumbo coming back to get permission to turn the public spaces into further apartments claiming public use was now ‘unviable’ – and with the principle of development already conceded, those proposals would have a good chance of succeeding.

The problem for me is that we were being asked to surrender the iconic status of Jumbo by filling in the legs in return for what might only be a fleeting benefit, if it was of any benefit at all. A Jumbo that’s open to all and a community asset is one thing, and quite different from one that’s become effectively a block of flats.

What I have been cheered by is that the proposal and the discussion its caused in the local community does seem to have emboldened people to take some action and start talking about other visions for Jumbo and how it could find a genuine community use. The important fact is that Jumbo is not in danger of falling down any time soon – indeed, it stood up to Monday’s winds much better than some other local buildings did – and the Council now needs to ensure that the owner meets his responsibilities for a listed building and keeps it maintained.

I want to see Jumbo being used as an asset for the community and Colchester, but I want it to be with the right plans, not simply the plans that have been submitted right now.

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If you fancy the prospect of working with me, Sir Bob Russell MP and other Liberal Democrats in Colchester, then you might want to look at this job advert for a new organiser and parliamentary assistant.

Fracking

I’ve had a number of residents contact me recently regarding fracking, and whether there’ll be any taking place in the Colchester area. Having looked into the issue, it looks very unlikely that there’ll be any taking place in East Anglia, as the geology of this area means it’s very unlikely to contain any shale gas – or, at least, any significant amounts that would be economically viable to explore for and extract.

However, if someone decided they wanted to try, they’d have to first get themselves approved by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to explore and extract gas. A license to do so in this area would then have to be granted by Essex County Council who are responsible for minerals extraction – this normally involves quarrying in this area, but would include other mining operations if someone wanted to try them – and finally, Colchester Borough Council would have to grant planning permission for any surface works involved in the operation. So, even if there were deposits here that might be accessible by fracking, there’d be plenty of opportunities for the public to have their say before anything began.

As for the principle of fracking itself, I’m still waiting to see something conclusive from the evidence. As I understand it, burning gas for power produces fewer greenhouse gases than burning coal or oil for the equivalent amount of power, but the supposed cost benefits of shale gas are not likely to be that great – from what I’ve read, gas prices dropped in the US after shale gas production started because it’s mostly separate from the global gas market, so a surge in production there affected the domestic price. However, the UK and Europe are an integral part of that market, so increases in production won’t have as big an effect on the overall market price. There’s also the question of what effect such production has on the local environment.

However, beyond those considerations, there’s the global effect of continuing to extract carbon-based fuels from the ground and release that carbon into the atmosphere. This article provides a good overview of how we’re heading for a massive overshoot of carbon targets, and even if gas does release less carbon than oil or coal, if the oil and coal it displaces in the short term is still burnt, then it all goes into the atmosphere in the long run. For me, it seems that fracking is a minor distraction in the wider vision of how we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we release before it’s far too late.

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In memory of Mel Smith

Possibly the only Alas Smith and Jones sketch to involve Colchester:

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Just a short post to let people know that Colchester Liberal Democrats now have our own page on Facebook, which should have plenty of updates and discussion from our council group. If you want to like it and get updates from us, then click here and don’t forget there are also pages for Sir Bob Russell and a certain Cllr Nick Barlow.

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Earlier this week, I was interviewed by the Colchester Gazette in my new role as group leader. Unfortunately, they didn’t put the article online, but as I own a copy of the paper, a pair of scissors and a scanner, here it is:
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You can click on the image to see it in a readable size. The headline wasn’t exactly something I said, but otherwise I think it generally reflects the conversation I had with James.

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