Colchester town centre is ‘the stuff of dreams’

Colchester High Street

Colchester High Street - Credit: Su Anderson

Colchester has a centre “other towns dream of” according to a national retail expert.

Tollgate Village - artist's impression

Tollgate Village - artist's impression - Credit: Archant

Ed Cooke, director of policy at the British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC), said the Essex town is one of a handful of shining examples of a shopping destination, bringing together retail, leisure and culture all in one place.

He said: “The evolution of the internet means retailers require fewer but larger stores to reach the same market, and as a consequence there are gaps opening up in high streets being filled by coffee shops, leisure operators – such as Curzon cinema in Colchester [planned for Queen Street] – and even healthcare providers.

“These places are becoming destinations, still underpinned by traditional retail sites, but supported through a mix of uses.

“Colchester seems to me to be a place grasping the nettle in that respect.

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“In the same way you do in business, you need to create some unique selling point and not everywhere is as lucky as Colchester.

“Colchester has what other places would dream of, having things like the heritage, and that seems to me to be recognised by people.

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“It takes a long time to build up a positive reputation for a place like Colchester and it can leave pretty quickly.”

The importance of the town centre has been much debated in Colchester recently with concerns over delays to schemes such as the Vineyard Gate development and in Primark’s planned opening of a store in the town, combined with proposed out-of-town developments in Stanway and at the Northern Gateway.

But Hugo Fenwick, group trading director at Fenwick – owners of Williams & Griffin in the High Street which is undergoing a £30million re-development – said

the town had a “wonderful mix” of retail and culture, including the museum, Tymperley’s, firstsite and Mercury Theatre, which “has so much to offer”.

He said: “Comparing it to other towns in East Anglia Colchester is very much one of the finest in the south of the region, and can very much reach out to Suffolk and west Essex. It is a vitally important centre to the region.

“I’m very excited by the potential of Colchester town centre. and we hope our development is a catalyst to more elsewhere in the town. We are pleased at how many plans, both commercial and cultural, have come forward since we began our project two years’ ago.

“All of those things take much longer to come to fruition than an out-of-town development, and costs more, but the ultimate prize is so much greater.

“Colchester has a historic opportunity to even better meld the cultural and commercial sectors together and be a true destination.

“To have more than 80 independent retailers is almost unique in the south-east.”

Tollgate decision due this week

Developers behind the Tollgate Village proposals have hit out at council officers’ opposition ahead of a final decision on the scheme.

The Tollgate Partnership plans include a multi-screen cinema and retail complex in Stanway.

A Colchester Borough Council planning committee voted against officers’ recommendations against the proposal on the chairman’s casting vote.

However a final decision was deferred to allow officers to look at the legal implications for approving the scheme, and to reinforce the planning reasons for going against the officers’ advice.

The committee will meet on Thursday for the crunch decision – but without the chairman and deputy chairman from the last meeting who are unavailable.

Officers have again recommended the planning application is turned down, citing the impact on Colchester town centre and on the council-backed Northern Gateway scheme – which also includes a multi-plex cinema, restaurants and leisure use.

In a statement, Jayne Gee and Daniel Watts from the Tollgate Partnership, said: “We are disappointed with the officer’s report – it focuses on a number of factors we do not believe are relevant.

“It is clearly aimed at scaring members into reconsidering their support for the scheme.

“We are grateful for the support of the many councillors who have previously recognised the overwhelming public support for Tollgate Village.

“The report scaremongers with threats of judicial review but not identified any possible cause of such an action.”

In the report, planning officers state: “In restating this, officers are anxious to ensure the context for doing so is clearly understood.

“It is not a question of officers trying to apply undue pressure on councillors. That would be wholly unacceptable and improper and is alien to the

relationship that has been cultivated over decades in Colchester.

“That is not the intention.”

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