A lot has been said in the past four days about Colchester Borough Council’s decision to reject the planning application for the Tollgate Village retail and leisure development near the existing Tollgate shopping centre. There has been a storm of protest and genuine anger on social media, and the Daily Gazette newspaper readers’ comments, from Colchestrians who clearly believe that it is just the kind of development the town needs and feel wronged that it was rejected.
Enough has already been written, and is still being written, about the how’s and why’s of the council rejecting the development at their planning meeting last Thursday evening so I don’t want to go back over that and point fingers again because when I had the idea for Colchester 101 a few years ago, originally in print form but now online, my vision was that it should be a vehicle for positivity about Colchester, its people, its organisations and clubs, music and arts scenes, and events. If you want to see my personal ‘no holds barred’ opinion though you can see it on my own blog HERE. A staggering 3000 of you have already read it in the three days since I posted it.
Looking at this from a positive Colchester 101 perspective, and now throwing our hat into the ring to join the online debate, this town needs Tollgate Village. It also needs Northern Gateway. And it needs the town centre to be dragged out of its current decline. I’m not in the business of knocking Colchester, I think it’s a fantastic place, but we have been slipping behind our neighbours in recent years and it’s about time we played catch up.
So many of us jump in our cars these days and head to Ipswich or Braintree to go to the cinema, and Lakeside, Bluewater, Chelmsford and Braintree to shop. Why? Because they offer something we don’t have here… ease of parking, variety and choice.
Colchester is expanding at breakneck speed but with little in the way of real infrastructure to accommodate the town’s rapidly growing population. The General Hospital is collapsing under the strain of the pressure it is being placed under, our road network can’t cope, and yet the town centre on a Saturday never seems as busy as I remember it years ago even with all these extra people that live here now, and everywhere there are casinos, nail bars and charity shops where there used to be retailers.
Colchester isn’t the shopping destination I remember it to be when I was growing up that people came down the A12 from Chelmsford to shop in. We once had Marks & Spencer’s UK flagship store, but not anymore. Now it’s the other way round, they head to Chelmsford and other retail destinations. But with Tollgate Village, and the council’s own preferred scheme Northern Gateway, we could become a major regional leisure and retail destination, and get some of that money that is currently spent in Chelmsford etc spent here instead, and attract people to come here from across Essex and Suffolk. The town centre can benefit from that too with a bit of joined up thinking. Look at how Chelmsford reinvented itself when it pedestrianised its high street a few years ago, creating a pleasant shopping environment that people from all over the surrounding area want to visit, along with its two indoor shopping malls and covered market. This pedestrianised shopping area is home to the town’s outdoor market stalls, spread along the street rather than huddled together on one side like in Colchester, and during warmer weather it plays host to community and charity events, local brass and silver bands, and street performers.
We could have the same. Look at the success of the Light and Shades Family Fun Day on Halloween when the High Street was closed for the day. The street was packed all day. In my opinion we need to find a way to permanently pedestrianise the High Street and emulate what Chelmsford has done. I know the Roman wall might cause some problems, and there are the issues of disabled access, buses and deliveries to contend with, but other towns find ways of solving problems and we can too. Instead of finding reasons why we can’t do it we should be looking for ways we can do it. In my business Media48 we don’t say to our customers “We can’t do that, there’s obstacles in our way” we get on with it and find a way to make it happen. Colchester Borough Council needs to start – and I apologise for the cliché – thinking outside the box. No correct that, thinking like there isn’t a box. Oh, and reduce the extortionate cost of parking in the town centre because if you want people to shop here then don’t rob them blind to park their cars.
We could have Tollgate Village, Northern Gateway AND a vibrant and prosperous town centre. We need to play to our strengths and use our unique history to full effect in the town centre. Market this old town of ours properly as a tourist destination instead of just focussing on the castle, as awe-inspiring as it is. Get people coming to our town to shop, and compete with the likes of Freeport and Chelmsford, whether that’s for our town centre experience, or leisure and retail with choices like Tollgate Village and Northern Gateway.
Putting our town firmly on the leisure and retail map could also have a knock on effect. It would make it more attractive to potential major employers looking for a location for new headquarters, regional offices, manufacturing plants etc, because these are what their potential and future employees are looking for before considering relocating to a new town. You never know, we could one day actually replace the likes of Royal London and Guardian Direct, creating more jobs and bringing more money into the town.
I don’t want to be writing in another ten years about how much further this town has slipped behind our neighbours, I want to be living in the town that, just like when I was growing up here, our neighbours want to come to because it has the best shopping and leisure facilities around. We can become a regional force to be reckoned with, but to achieve that we need developments such as Tollgate Village. If you feel the same way as I do and you haven’t already done so, then please sign the petition that was created by Twitter user and champion of this town @colchesterviews. We can’t force this development to happen, but if the petition gets over 1800 signatures it should force a full council debate to discuss the matter.
You can find the petition HERE.