MPs row in Commons over art gallery

AN MP was yesterday accused in the House of Commons of “small town politicking” and having a “vendetta” against plans for a £16.5 million art gallery in Colchester.

By Roddy Ashworth

AN MP was yesterday accused in the House of Commons of “small town politicking” and having a “vendetta” against plans for a £16.5 million art gallery in Colchester.

Conservative Bernard Jenkin was barracked by Liberal Democrats as he criticised the town's Lib Dem MP Bob Russell who had called for new legislation surrounding local referendums.

Mr Russell had told the Commons his Local Government Referendums Bill had been prompted by what he claimed was the “arrogance” of Tory-ruled Colchester Borough Council in its bid to build a landmark contemporary visual arts facility on the site of the town's open-air bus station.

He claimed public opinion in Colchester was opposed to the plan and said that more than 15,000 people had signed a petition to keep the town's bus station.

He added the “arrogance of power” needed to be checked and the Bill would provide that check.

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Mr Russell said: “If a referendum was held then the people of Colchester would vote overwhelmingly against what the council is inflicting on the town, aided and abetted by quangos and others, often people who do not live in the town yet who are able to drive through an agenda which local people do not want.”

But Mr Jenkin, whose constituency includes part of the borough of Colchester, told Mr Russell: “The House has heard ... of a lot of small-town politicking which I fear does you no credit, does the town of Colchester no credit and certainly is underselling what is a very, very major project for the benefit of the people of Colchester.”

He said the facility was in a run-down area of the town and that developers would be building a new bus station.

Mr Jenkin also claimed the project would attract 120,000 visitors to the town each year and would create 33 jobs.

The Bill gained its first reading but has little chance of becoming law due to a lack of parliamentary time.

Mr Russell has been consistently vociferous in his objections to the VAF and the relocation of the bus station, despite the fact the majority of his Liberal Democrat colleagues on the local council support it.

The scheme has attracted around £15 million of outside money towards its construction from bodies such as the East of England Development Agency and the Arts Council of England.

Mr Russell has maintained a smaller art gallery, built on Queen Street, could exist harmoniously with the existing bus station.

However, planners on Colchester Borough Council have said that the bus station is due to be moved - whether or not the VAF is built - as part of the St Botolph's masterplan, a multi-million pound regeneration project designed to bring new life to the run-down area.

Yesterday John Jowers, leader of Colchester Borough Council, gave his response to Mr Russell's accusations of arrogance.

“It would seem to me that a joint sense of purpose among the elected members of Colchester Borough Council would serve our town better than the antics of Mr Russell,” he said.

Referring to Mr Jenkin's support of the VAF, he added: “I am pleased to see that at least one of the borough's MPs is standing up for the project.”

Mr Russell last night refused to comment.

n The planning application for the controversial arts building in Colchester has sparked more than 120 objections.

But many of the letters written opposing proposals for the VAF have been ruled irrelevant because they do not address planning matters.

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