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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The abuse of the planning process by local councils is an issue to which the Government need to give urgent attention. Public confidence in local councils when it come to determining planning applications is seriously undermined when the local council is the applicant or the beneficiarythat is, where it has a vested interest in pushing something through in the face of overwhelming public opposition. I therefore hope that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will hold a full public planning inquiry into proposals for the St. Botolph's quarter in Colchester, an area to the south and east of Britain's oldest recorded town. It lies on either side of the Roman wall, which has been a dominant feature for more than 2,000 years.
Few would deny that urban regeneration of the area is needed. However, it is the manner in which the borough council, in particular, has proceededwith the backing of Essex county councilthat has caused so much outcry. It is no exaggeration to say that the borough council is making things up as it goes alongor, to be more accurate, that it is dancing to whatever tune is being played by a property developer based in Yorkshire. Town hall secrecy is such that even the majority of councillors are not being told what is going on, let alone the general public.
In June 2003, the council issued what it described as the "St Botolph's Quarter Masterplan Document". Even though that document was claimed to be
such was its usefulness that within months it was, in effect, torn up. More than £100,000 of public money had been invested in that document.
Next, in July this year, came the "Revised Draft MasterplanProposed Supplementary Planning Document", which bore little resemblance to what had been put forward originally. The council has yet to determine what its next move will be, but in effect the second document has also found its way into the shredder. A third set of proposalsit is likely that there will not be three but any number into double figuresis being drawn up in secret. That is being done not by the council, but by the property development company with which the council is in league, but whose identity has deliberately not been revealed to local people. Among those kept in the dark are most councillors and, it would appear, the local strategic partnership, Colchester 2020.
The council did go through the pretence of public consultation, as a box-ticking exercise. Public opinion, however, has been ignoredindeed, the whole thing was a charade. Residents have been deceived. We know that all along it was not the people of Colchester with whom the council was in conversation, but a company with share capital of £1,000, which was formed only last year. Conservative Councillor Robert Davidson, deputy leader of the council and portfolio holder for regeneration, was quoted in the Essex County Standard on 10 December as saying:
"We talked to the developers privately for two years to make sure the resulting planning application would include the right benefits and community facilities for the town."
Quite simply, while the council was going through the pretence of showing plans and the so-called public consultation, it was going behind the backs of the people
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of Colchester and holding secret talks with property developers of whom the public had no knowledge. The pieces of the jigsaw shown to the public were not the same as those in the jigsaw box that the council handed over to the property developers who are driving the agenda. Indeed, the developers are designing their own jigsaw.
From what little has found its way into local newspapers, we know that the developers are working on alternative scheme plan 18b of what to do with the buses following closure of the Queen street bus station. That is a further reason why a public planning inquiry is needed. The future of the town's bus services cannot be left to the mercy of a here today, gone tomorrow property developer and a council cabinet only one of whose eight members lives in the town, and not one of whom I have ever seen on a service bus.
The only thing that has remained unchanged from the council's original proposals is the closure of the Queen street bus station. Two years ago, it was claimed that the site was needed for a £16.5 million visual arts facility, most of the money for which would come from external public funding sources. It is now proposed that the arts gallery needs only a corner of the site. The latest plans show the gallery being erected on the site of a scheduled ancient monument, and the designers claim that it can be built without foundations. It will be interesting to see how they get around national building regulations and how English Heritage will react to those around the country who will no doubt use the Colchester example to build on other sites of scheduled ancient monuments.
Local people are divided about the visual arts facility, although a clear majority are opposed to the current proposals, particularly when council tax payers will be required to pay around £300,000 every year to cover the projected operating losses, assuming that the promoters attract the number of visitors for which they are budgeting. Various surveys of public opinion have all shown majority support for keeping the bus station broadly on its present site in Queen street. They range from support of 64 per cent. in a recent poll by one newspaper to 94 per cent. in one by another. Last year, I carried out a random sample survey of the electorate that showed that 82 per cent. wanted the bus station to stay where it is. It is nice to know that I am in step with public opinion and that the Conservatives in Colchester are not. The all-Tory Cabinet, including my likely opponent at the general election, wants to shut the bus station and sell the site for development. As an aside, let me say that Labour in Colchester supports me on this issue.
The Queen street site is big enough for both the bus station and a visual arts facility of sensible size, designed to fit the character of an historic town. It would not need such a huge annual subsidy from council tax payers. The existing bus station does need improving, but that could easily be funded by section 106 agreements from the proposed commercial development in the Vineyard and Osborne street area of the St. Botolph's quarter. It just needs good leadership from the council to achieve that.
A sustainable visual arts gallery could occupy the frontage of Queen street, where there are two ugly 1960s buildings, which, by some happy coincidence, the
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borough council now owns. I want to inform the House of the manner in which that happened. About two years ago the council tried to buy one, if not both, buildings, which are joined. Although I gather that they were not on the open market, it would appear that the council was gazumped by a company called CFK Developments, or CFK Investments, of 20 Park place, Leeds. It is my understanding that the council offered just under £1 million for one of the buildings. A few months later, according to the council's annual accounts for 200304, it paid CFK Investments £3,443,955 for the two buildings. It seems that CFK made something of a killing.
The last financial year, according to the council's accounts, reveals that the council was involved in a somewhat interesting transaction whereby it used public funds to purchase land in Vineyard street for £256,630 via Martin Elliot and Co., presumably a firm of solicitors, and then sold the same piece of land for the same price to a firm of solicitors called Kelly & Co., the address of which, by a happy coincidence, is the same as the registered address of CFK Developments in Leeds. In all my years in public life, I have never come across a council getting involved in property transactions in this way and using public funds to facilitate the aspirations of a private company.
Also in the last financial year the accounts show that the council sold to CFK Investments, for £650,000, the Kwik-Fit premises in Osborne street, which the council had bought in the past because it forms a crucial part of the landholding for the entire redevelopment of the Vineyard Gate area. I have not been able to find any evidence that the council put this property on to the market or sought competitive quotes, a process which in all my 34 years of holding elected office has always been carried out in accordance with local government best practice and legislation.
A search of Companies House shows that last year a company was formed to take forward development proposals for that part of St. Botolph's quarter now known as Vineyard Gate. This company takes the name Vineyard Gate Developments Ltd. Its registered offices are at Calder Grange, Knottingley, West Yorkshire. This company is a joint venture between Caddick Developments Ltd, of the same address, and CFK Developments Ltd of 20 Park Place, Leeds.
At the time CFK acquired the Kwik-Fit premises, it is my understanding that neither CFK nor Vineyard Gate Developments owned any sites or property in the Vineyard Gate area, and if they did, it still left the borough council by far the largest landowner in this important redevelopment area, which will form a continuation of the central shopping area. The council had all the key playing cards to determine how the area should be developed.
To the best of my knowledge, the council did not offer for consideration to other potential property developers the fact that it was interested in working in partnership for a major development of this part of the town centre. I contrast this with the way the council, openly and without any secrecy, dealt with other town centre redevelopment projects at Lion walk in the early 1970s and Culver square in the mid-1980s. The council claims that all that it is doing in the St. Botolph's quarter is
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adopting supplementary planning guidance. However, what we are witnessing is a total rewrite, on a blank piece of paper, by the Yorkshire developer.
It was only in March this year that the Colchester borough local plan was officially adopted by the council. Yet even before it was signed, let alone before the ink was dry, the council was embarkingin secret debate with a single developeron what can only be described as a totally different set of proposals for the Vineyard Gate area; and, in the area of the Queen street bus station, with promoters of the visual arts facility, on a location and design that bear no relation to the original masterplan proposals.
In respect of supplementary planning guidance, the advice that I have been given by the House of Commons Library, quoting from the Government planning policy guidance on development plansPPG12is that it states quite clearly:
"Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) does not form a part of the Plan. It can take the form of design guides or areadevelopment briefs, or supplement other specific policies in a plan. . . . SPG should be prepared in consultation with the general public, businesses and other interested parties, and their views should be taken into account before it is finalised."
I hope that I have said sufficient to convince the Deputy Prime Minister that every aspect of the St. Botolph's redevelopment proposals in Colchester, ranging from the visual arts gallery being built on the site of a scheduled ancient monument to whatever plan emerges for the Vineyard Gate development, should be put before a public planning inquiry so that people and organisations with an interest have the opportunity to express their opinions. That the council has behaved in a secretive way is obvious. There has not been transparency. The public have been misled. Only a public planning inquiry will retrieve the situation.
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