Referendum on arts project snubbed

CALLS for a referendum on a controversial arts project in Essex were rejected by councillors at a special meeting last night.The meeting was called by the Labour Group of the Colchester Borough Council, whose deputy leader Richard Bourne proposed that an opinion poll should be conducted across the borough on whether or not the council should continue its support for a proposed £16.

CALLS for a referendum on a controversial arts project in Essex were rejected by councillors at a special meeting last night.

The meeting was called by the Labour Group of the Colchester Borough Council, whose deputy leader Richard Bourne proposed that an opinion poll should be conducted across the borough on whether or not the council should continue its support for a proposed £16.5 million visual arts facility (VAF) in the town.

The Liberal Democrats, however, proposed an amendment that made the question include not just the VAF but also the rest of the proposed St Botolph's regeneration project, which includes a new bus station, shopping centre and the promise of jobs and inward investment.

Although their amendment was voted on and adopted, when the final motion was put to the full council it was rejected.


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A total of 29 members voted against the proposed opinion poll, 23 voted for it and two abstained.

When plans for a VAF to house local arts organisation Firstsite were first mooted they received all-party support on the council, but political opponents now say because the plans have changed they have come out against the idea.

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The most controversial alteration to the building proposals, designed by internationally acclaimed architect Rafael Vinoly, was its relocation from the Queen Street frontage to land which currently forms part of the town's open-air bus station.

Around 15,000 people have signed a petition to keep the bus station where it is.

Addressing the Conservative controlled council yesterday, Paula Whitney, a local co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth, said: “We should have a referendum. Why is this an issue? It is an issue because the VAF has been situated on the top of the bus station and the bus users are going to be put out.

“The bus users were not against the VAF. They were against it being plonked on top of the best public transport arrangement we have.”

Tim Oxton, of the Save Our Bus station campaign, said: “If you were not calling for the bus station to be closed everybody would be happy to see the VAF built.”

Rob Brown, of the Priory Road Residents Association, said he thought both motions proposed for the referendum question were flawed.

But he added: “I'd like the speakers to tell me why this building cannot revert to its original site.

“The only reason we have so much opposition to the referendum from the supporters of Firstsite is because they know they are going to lose.”

But resident Jim Edwards said: “I am not concerned which part of the town I pick up a bus as long as I can pick up a bus.

“People who take part in referenda get misinformation. I trust the people elected to be really in the know about subjects. I don't trust everybody in the town to have that knowledge.”

And Dee Evans of the town's strategic partnership, Colchester 2020, warned that if the council turned down the £10 million of external money offered for the project it would be unlikely to receive grants for other major projects in the future.

“Nobody is going to waste time and money backing a town where the council commits to a project, finds the investment and then fails to deliver it. Stick to the plan.”

Speaking after last night's meeting, council leader John Jowers said: “Common sense has prevailed. We have got politics out of one of the biggest decisions to affect Colchester in a long time.

“We can now go ahead and push on with it.”

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