Jumbo saved from insensitive redevelopment

by Jo Hayes on 10 November, 2013

On 31st October I, with Castle Ward colleague Cllr Nick Barlow and Balkerne Tower Trust chairman Brian Light, urged Colchester’s Planning Committee to refuse the owner’s planning and listed building applications for permission to fill in Jumbo Water Tower’s legs, insert floors and convert most of the space within into offices and flats. After an at times emotional debate the Planning Committee voted 7:3 to reject the applications.

Whether to support or oppose was one of the most significant choices to have confronted me as a Castle Ward councillor. I kept an open mind as long as possible, even after 16th October, the date when the Victorian Society published its 2013 Top Ten most endangered Victorian and Edwardian buildings. The list included Jumbo under the caption “Colchester’s skyline at risk from insensitive redevelopment”. See http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/jumbo-water-tower-colchester/

For my lifetime as a Colcestrian born and bred, Jumbo has always been there, part of the scene. Its combined height, mass, strength and grace I took for granted until its future was brought into question. But to visitors arriving by train the silhouette in the distance with its huge pillars, the glimpses of sky between and the green copper roof must seem unique and remarkable, even surprising to those who don’t know that Colchester is special.

Jumbo was built by Colchester to provide clean water to the people. It belonged to Colchester. It is a monument to Victorian engineering skills, ambition and civic pride. Its ownership was taken away as part of the Thatcher government’s privatisations. Then it was decommissioned. Here it remains, indifferent to neglect by successive private sector owners.

As a Grade II* listed building Jumbo must not be subjected to any substantial harm – which to my mind means any harm that is more than minimal – unless there is a countervailing public benefit, or other strict criteria are fulfilled. The judgment that confronted the Planning Committee was whether the proposals amounted to substantial harm, and if so, whether they offered sufficient to outweigh that detriment. Deliberate neglect by the owner was irrelevant. In the end a clear majority concluded that there was substantial harm, and not enough to be said in favour to outweigh it. I think the Planning Committee was right.

I was pestered by a local activist to support a “restaurant in the sky”. But Colchester town centre is full of restaurants. I am not aware of any pressing need for such a restaurant and I cannot recall any other resident contacting me to tell me they wanted one.  It is a faddy sort of idea that will recede like flotsam. Colchester deals in permanence: it’s been here two thousand years. Colcestrians think long term.

In the end I could not support a proposal to spend millions of pounds turning this singular structure into offices and flats. I could not support it partly because the area is designated for cultural uses but offices and flats are not cultural uses (and I was sorry and somewhat surprised to read that the planning policy department of Colchester Borough Council felt able to conclude that it was consistent with local planning policy).

Above all, though, I could not support a proposal to turn something extraordinary into something ordinary.

Jumbo is waiting for someone to come forward with an idea that will preserve, even enhance, Jumbo’s uniqueness – those soaring arches, those glimpses of sky between, the enormous space beneath. When that aha! moment comes, we will think: of course – why did no one think of that before? Until then, Colcestrians must conserve Jumbo from harm.

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