Essex town fights back against downturn

AN Essex town's efforts to recover from the recession are beginning to show signs of success - with its number of empty shops beginning to decrease.

Annie Davidson

AN Essex town's efforts to recover from the recession are beginning to show signs of success - with its number of empty shops beginning to decrease.

But a business leader in Colchester has said the key to economic recovery lies in the multi-million pound Vineyard Gate development moving forward.

Fears have been voiced that new businesses have been put off investing in the town while the future of the �250 million project is unclear.

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The development of department stores, retails units, cafes, restaurants and a car park was postponed last year because of the recession.

Michelle Reynolds, chairman of the Colchester Retail Business Association, said it was difficult to get new businesses interested in the St Botolph's area as they “did not know if they had a future or not.”

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She spoke out after the Essex Federation of Small Businesses released figures which revealed Colchester had more empty shops than the average UK town.

The national average is 12% with Colchester's currently 12.1%.

Mrs Reynolds said the figure had been as high 12.4% so was begin to fall although it was still higher than both Tendring and Chelmsford.

She said: “Colchester seemed to have a lot more shop units empty several months ago which are now being taken by new businesses and opening up.

“There are some areas of the town like St Botolph's which is earmarked as a redevelopment area with the Vineyard Gate where it is difficult to get people interested because they don't know if they have got a future or not.

“The rest of the town seems to be a bit more stable.”

Mrs Reynolds added: “I wouldn't say we were very pessimistic, we have to be optimistic.

“I think Colchester has received quite negative publicity and it is easy for people to talk the town down but it is vibrant - it just needs some investment but the council knows that.

“If everyone pulls together and the empty shops units were filled it could be quite buoyant.”

Colchester borough councillor Paul Smith, portfolio holder for diversity, resources, arts and culture, said last night that discussions continued with the developer for Vineyard Gate but “there is no immediate prospect for a start because of the current economic climate.”

Mr Smith, who is currently responsible for the business portfolio after Nigel Offen resigned due to ill health, said the council had undertaken a number of projects to support small businesses during the recession, including helping them apply for business rate relief.

“We are seeing some sense of improvement in the economic circumstances in Colchester and unemployment is starting to go down against the national trend,” he said.

“Things are doing better and are beginning to slowly pick up.”

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