Roddy Ashworth looks at the battle for Colchester, one of just two Liberal Democrat held seats in East Anglia.ELECTION fever in Colchester reached a peak in the run up to the 2001 poll when the constituency had the honour of being the only three way marginal in the country.
Roddy Ashworth looks at the battle for Colchester, one of just two Liberal Democrat held seats in East Anglia.
ELECTION fever in Colchester reached a peak in the run up to the 2001 poll when the constituency had the honour of being the only three way marginal in the country.
In the end Colchester's sitting MP - the populist former PR man Bob Russell - secured a second victory for the Liberal Democrats, increasing his majority.
Labour's lacklustre performance in 2001 means the town is no longer a target seat - there are more important fights to be fought nearby - but the Tories still believe there is a battle to be won in Britain's oldest recorded town.
Colchester is beginning a period of enormous change. “Regeneration” is the key word.
Four massive building projects are underway - the redevelopment of the former industrial port area at the Hythe, the creation of a new garrison, the revamping of the St Botolph's quarter of the town centre and the building of a stadium to house Colchester United.
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All involve building thousands of houses, and with good reason. The Government has ordered the borough council to find space for 17,100 extra homes in the town and surrounding areas as part of the dramatic increase in the amount of residential accommodation in the South and East of England. Colchester is attempting to place the majority on “brown field” sites such as the former Severalls Hospital and Hythe area.
Each of these developments has caused a degree of controversy, but none more so than the St Botolph's Quarter, where major retail and cultural extension is planned.
This includes not only the moving of the town's bus station - an unpopular proposal not least with Mr Russell, who has seized it as a stick with which to beat the Tory council - but also the creation of a multi-million pound “Visual Arts Facility.” Plans for the £16.5 million VAF, as it is known, have also been criticised by the MP, who has issued ominous warnings about the bill local taxpayers may have to foot if this major project fails.
Mr Russell is an experienced politician who makes a point of the fact he is proud of being from Colchester - “you have to bear in mind not everybody was born within the sound of the town hall chimes.”
MP for the seat since it was snatched from the Tories in 1997, Mr Russell already had an impressive track record in the town - he had been a councillor since 1971, firstly as a Labour member, then swithcing to the fledgling Social Democrats, and continuing as a Liberal Democrat.
He was mayor from 1986 to 1987 and then led the borough council for four years subsequently. He actually stood as Labour candidate for Colchester at the 1979 election.
“I think it is important to have a strong voice for Colchester in Parliament, and I hope my record shows that. But it is also essential to have a hard-working MP in the constituency as well,” he said.
“I shall continue to press central Government for more affordable rental housing - we have a crisis in Colchester, with 4,000 children going to bed in accommodation which is technically over-crowded.
“More than 35% of wage earning households can't afford to buy on the market. We need better family accommodation.”
He also believes that changes need to be made in education, including the removal of demountable classrooms - there are currently about 50 in the town, he said - and their replacement with permanent buildings.
Mr Russell, a sports spokesman for the Lib Dem party at Westminster, wants to see more physical education for school age children.
“It is an issue I have been raising for some years,” he said. “Youngsters are increasingly and numerically more obese.
“Today's generation will have a lower life expectancy than their parents and grandparents, for the first time in 100 years, because of obesity,” he said.
Mr Russell declared himself in favour of regeneration in Colchester, despite his reservations about the proposed St Botolph's scheme.
“I don't need any lectures about urban regeneration, because I have been there and pioneered it,” he said, emphasising his active record on the council, which included crucial roles in a number of major projects.
He also stressed his support as MP for the Hythe regeneration project, as well as his involvement with retaining a number of the former Severall's Hospital buildings, the preservation of much of Abbeyfield in the Garrison project and the plans for the creation of a new community stadium at Cuckoo Farm.
“Where it has all gone wrong with St Botolph's is that if those with all the various interests had had their needs taken into account, you would almost certainly have had a refurbished bus station where the existing one is now and a sustainable visual arts facility (VAF) with its frontage on Queen's Street.
“I am in favour of new retail development at St Botolph's, but it should not be at the expense of the small traders,” he said.
“Colchester has so much going for it - it's been a privilege to be the MP for the last eight years,” he said. “I want to continue to put Colchester on the map nationally.”
His Conservative opponent, Kevin Bentley, is standing against Mr Russell in a General Election for the second time. Although recognisable as a former presenter of the local BBC news programme Look East, when he stood for Parliament in 2001 he was not necessarily associated with Colchester.
Now he hopes that has changed. Successfully standing for council in 2002, he has raised his profile considerably in the town and now sits on the borough's ruling cabinet, where he is responsible for business, tourism and leisure. As part of the cabinet who, along with the Lib Dem group on the council, spearheaded the St Botolph's regeneration plans, he believes the proposed revamp of the area will be a great asset.
“To my mind, this is all about Colchester's heritage - past, present and future. We have to make sure we preserve what we have but also think of Colchester as a town for the next 100 years.
“I hugely support the VAF. I think it is a great opportunity for Colchester and the East of England. It will increase both tourism and jobs.
“We are an expanding town, and there is nothing we can do to stop that. We need to make sure we have the correct job and leisure opportunities.
“We don't want this to become a dormitory town, where people just sleep and then work elsewhere.
“The way we can avoid that is by encouraging companies to relocate to Colchester. I want to work on that as an MP,” Mr Bentley said.
“We sit right in the middle of the new A120, between Harwich Port and Stansted Airport - we have a brilliant opportunity, with excellent road and rail links to London.
“We need to say to companies - Colchester is the place to be.
“I've said it for years - there is a huge influx of people and families and we must be able to offer them highly paid jobs. I also want to drive up the wage base, but we need affordable housing.”
However, Mr Bentley believes that as well as investment, a rethink in public services is also needed.
“We have a great hospital in Colchester, but it could be even better if there were less bureaucracy and doctors and nurses were empowered.
“We would like to re-introduce matrons to the wards, and make sure our hospitals are kept clean.
“Teachers, also, should be allowed to teach more, and have to complete paperwork and reports less.
“We need more police, and we guarantee 923 extra police officers for Essex. Colchester is quite a safe town, but we need to make people feel safer on our streets.”
Laura Bruni, a parliamentary assistant who is standing for Labour in Colchester, is keen to stress the Government's record nationally.
“One of the big issues in this election is the strength of the economy. We have low unemployment and low inflation.
“The reason Colchester has got a brighter future, with all the investment and business, is because of the strong economy.
“The Tories have a poor record in economic management - they would put everything we now have at risk.”
Ms Bruni, who lives in Walthamstow, added that the future of the NHS was also an important issue. “We have got the new hospital being built in Colchester, the new walk-in centre and new GP services.
“The NHS is not perfect, but we are going in the right direction and we are committed to continuing. The Government's investment in public services is something people are aware of.”
She said that as well as looking to the past, Colchester also had to look to the future - and criticised the current Tory council over its handling of regeneration projects.
“Colchester is Britain's oldest recorded town, and it is very attractive - it's an ideal place for people to live and bring up a family, with its history, its university, and its transport links.
“But it could obviously do better, because some of the regeneration plans have not gone through as quickly as we would have liked.
“The council has made a complete mess of the Hythe area with the failure to get the flood barrier.”
She said she felt that she would be better able to promote the town because her political allegiances would be the same as the Government's.
“If I was elected I would be working closely with Ministers to make sure all of Colchester's issues were in their minds.”