Claims Colchester town centre being left to ‘stagnate’ – as out-of-town leisure site recommended for thumbs down

Artists' impression of Stane Park

Artists' impression of Stane Park - Credit: Archant

Opposition councillors in Colchester have accused the administration of letting the town centre stagnate – as planning officers recommend proposals for an out-of-town leisure park are refused.

The Conservative group on Colchester Borough Council (CBC) is calling for “straight answers” on delays to the Vineyard Gate project, and asking why the council cannot do more when private firms such as Fenwicks are investing £30m into its Williams & Griffin store.

Brian Jarvis, group spokesman on economic development, said: “Eighteen months have passed since the much-heralded draft terms and conditions were agreed by the Lib Dem controlled Cabinet for the key Vineyard Gate project, yet in reality we are still no closer to getting ‘spades in the ground’.

“Surely if the time is right for private companies to have confidence to invest massively in the town, why cannot the council get the plans for Vineyard Gate off the drawing board and into the site?

“The town centre is losing out to Chelmsford, Ipswich and Norwich. Fresh investment is desperately needed in our town to bring back the shoppers and visitors to Colchester.

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“As a matter of urgency I ask that this administration act now to inject fresh momentum into the Vineyard Gate project.”

Paul Smith, leader of CBC, said: “How can you talk about the town centre stagnating when you have the Fenwick investment, as well as £10m from The George Hotel and the Greyfriars’ development? All these tangible things are happening.

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“Yes some things are developing quicker than others, that’s the nature of things. There has been huge job creation.

“Things are progressing at Vineyard Gate, though it is slower than I would have liked.

“I would encourage people not to talk down Colchester town centre but look at the positive things that are happening there.

“What is not helping is the uncertainty out at Stane Park. If you’re thinking of making a big investment in Colchester, you want to know whether that will impact on your decision making.”

Proposals for the Stane Park leisure quarter put forward by Churchmanor Estates in Stanway, with six restaurants including KFC, Nandos and Bella Italia, are recommended for refusal by CBC planning officers.

The authority’s planning committee is due to rule on the proposals during a meeting on Thursday evening, from 6pm at the Town Hall.

In a report published ahead of the meeting planners recommend the plans are refused because it represents a loss of traditional employment land and would be “likely to adversely harm the vitality and viability of the town centre”.

Stephen Clark, managing director of Churchmanor Estates, said: “I am extremely disappointed with the recommendation for refusal but the final decision does rest with the planning committee.

“I hope they will note this is the first time there has been any real interest in the site in 20 years and there are now six high quality occupiers who have confirmed their long-term commitment.

“I believe there are many benefits to Stanway, and whilst the McMullens pub, Coast to Coast and Bella Italia will be new to the area, the other three occupiers [Nandos, KFC and Starbucks] already have restaurants in the town centre so will be opening second restaurants in Stanway. I would also question whether this development does have the detrimental impact on the town centre.

“They will help meet demand from the growing community, where there are 1,800 new houses being built.”

He added that the £12million development would create up to 250 jobs, and that there should be some flexibility in the designation of employment land.

Mr Smith said: “In Colchester we as a council have committed to supporting the town centre, and while big retailers may go out of town small retailers – who are the life blood of Colchester’s shopping experience – cannot afford to do so.

“When you look at the impact of Braintree Freeport on Braintree town centre you can see an inappropriate development can drain the life out of the town centre.”

Mr Smith added he could not comment on the specific Stane Park plans as it was a matter for the planning committee but said he always welcomed a quick planning decision.

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