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.