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Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Response to Ben Locker

Dear Ben

Thank you for taking the trouble to reply to my comments about recent developments with Jumbo.

Just to clear things up, I used this blog to speak for myself in my role with but not for BWTAS. Some of our members have bought and converted towers for themselves and most of them did it for romantic, creative reasons and I expect many would vow never again. Owning a water tower seems to be a short cut to madness and financial ruin.

I examined the evidence for Braithwaite's assertion it was a political decision (BBC Look East) along with all the Torys voting for and other parties against. I don't assert (nor actually agree) it was a political decision. The Gazette's live blog mentioned Bob Russell's interjection and that it was overruled. To think every one of them voted because being pro to his development is a Tory position and any objection is anti-Tory is absurd.

But I am saying the question of politics was brought into the debate by Braithwaite's assertion the decision was merely political combined with his permitting political banners on Jumbo - and to some extent Darius Laws identifying himself as a 'political activist'. I would draw the conclusion regardless of what party's banner hung there and certainly I don't assert Tories are evil. Some of my best friends are. IF it wasn't a political decison, Braithwaite didn't create it. IF it was, then look at what might have made it so.

I am not ascribing party political actions to your and Law's campaign, I was asking if you were or not. Appearances matching a certain stereotype indicated you were. I know you appreciate I want this debate to be friendly. If I went too far I was riffing on a theme.

You and Darius have since cleared up by twitter that your passion for Jumbo is independent of the owner. How did the banner get on Jumbo? Darius takes credit for that. Just for full disclosure; Brian Light is a member of BWTAS. George Braithwaite was offered honorary BWTAS membership. If I recall an invitation to join and to meet and discuss access to Jumbo was sent in 2006 to him without response.

You skirted the questions if whether the museum proposal was merely a sop to the objectors. A desperate or deeply Machiavellian move? Or genuine generous altruism? You tell me what you think.

I don't see how the BTT's past or recent finances have any relevance. They or anyone else obviously cannot raise anything until they have possession or agreement on a means to obtain it. I am not privy to any inside information but at the 2006 auction (which I covered as a reporter) they dropped out of the bidding when it got to six figures. When the auction was announced at very short notice, Brian Light (I think his charity was formed later) raised a very considerable amount of money. I recall one supporter turning up and pledging him another £50,000 on the day but it wasn't enough. If I recall the BTT arose out of deep frustration for a prior developer not doing anything with Jumbo but letting it decay, much the same motivation you have. The BTT didn't exist when Jumbo first came on the market but if it had then, it could have bought it with what it raised later. By now we could be asking how do we refresh a tired museum everyone's been to. I feel sorry for Colchester and people who have spent 27 years trying to put Jumbo to good use. Jumbo is unique and its potential benefit is not constrained to Colchester but a much wider area.

You and Laws keep asserting the delays as justification for action. I assert that's not a valid reason as the cause of the delay is the developer's choice not to entertain sensible feasible offers.

You could demolish Jumbo and get £500,000 for the reclaimed bricks, they are 90p each on eBay. Then millions for the land? It's the varying weather vane of its potential returns that causes the value of Jumbo to rise and fall. The wind that blows that weather vane is the political makeup of the planning committee, confidence of banks and developers and the quality of the development proposals before it. Without planning permission its value as a security was rated at zero.

If you bought shares in a fast rising company expecting them to rise further but they in fact fell in value and then someone offered to take them off your hands for a rock bottom price, planning to salvage it as a downscaled but viable company with some further investment; you say that's unacceptable and deeply unfair. If you bet the wrong way on the market, are you entitled to a refund? Are you a capitalist or not? What options does BTT have? I would love know of some mechanism which would conjure up the £330,000 the owner needs to walk away without saddling the operator with unserviceable debt but we've missed the window for packaging up some mortgage backed securities.

You pick over the plans BTT proposed a long time ago when the nanosecond of opportunity to buy Jumbo was before them. I myself would present some different plans for Jumbo and I can see - from examples all around the world - there are many ways to exploit a property like Jumbo and yet be a good neighbour and maintain its heritage and cultural value, which I consider is utterly dependent on it remaining more intact than Braithwaite's current plan. But to offer them for discussion now would be commercially unwise. Would you publish your 'restaurant in the sky' recipes and wine list before you've hired your chef? Would show your client's competitor your pitch?

You sincerely don’t believe it’s possible to rescue Jumbo intact - I sincerely believe it is as I've seen it done. Somewhere there is common ground. Let's keep everyone working towards it.

I think it will be wearisome for our members if we continue to ping-pong point and counterpoint via our respective blogs but I am happy to respond to further developments as this story becomes part of the rich culture and history of water towers. 

I look forward to hearing if the council will promote an alternative approach. The BTT have invited round-table discussions. Let's hope some movement happens and when it does, we can be on hand to present our analysis. Our differences of opinion serves people to make up their own minds.

Nat Bocking

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Jumbo's conversion plans rejected and that's good for Colchester

George Braithwaite speaking to BBC Look East
The Colchester Gazette live-blog of the Colchester Borough Council planning meeting reports the proposal by the owner of Colchester's iconic 'Jumbo' water tower to convert it into flats and offices was rejected after a passionate debate. The BBC website also carried the story with quotes from both sides. The owner George Braithwaite and other commentators said afterwards the decision was a political one.

While BWTAS itself takes no position for or against water tower conversion per se, it exists to ensure the discussion of such proposals are fully informed about the heritage and cultural value of water towers, therefore I am exerting my privilege to comment on the latest developments in Jumbo's long and complex history.

The vote went along political lines with the three Conservative councillors on the planning committee all voting in support of the plan and the seven Lib-Dem, Independent and Labour councillors against. According to the Gazette, Colchester MP Sir Bob Russell contacted the council's chief executive Adrian Pritchard suggesting the Conservative councillors should have declared an interest because of a donation made by George Braithwaite to the North Essex Conservative Association. BWTAS noticed a 'Vote Conservative' banner was hung from Jumbo in 2010. 

That is a useful example of the enormous value of water towers for their owners and their potential to impact their surroundings. If politics played any part in the decision, then perhaps Braitwaite only brought that on himself.  

I have found two videos produced by a local 'political activist' Darius Laws and his associate Ben Locker. According to the Gazette, Darius is a Conservative and Ben says he is one too, though one can tell from his wearing of red trousers

Darius said if Braithwaite’s plans are opposed it would lead to “decades more neglect and decay and a lost opportunity to provide economic growth and enhancement for our town centre.” 

In their YouTube video posted on Oct 27, 2013 (though the date of production is not known) Darius and Ben took to the streets of Colchester to drum up support for Braithwaite's plans saying it would bring "a restaurant in the sky" and also a museum while the flats and offices are the necessary commercial exploitation of Jumbo in order to preserve it. 

Though I am not a heritage expert, as the author of a successful guide to water towers and the editor of this blog and as I have corresponded with hundreds of water tower enthusiasts, owners and developers over the years, I have the evidence that water towers have enormous power as attractions and there is great national and international interest in their heritage value.

The argument Ben and Darius posited on the streets has logic similar to US policy in the Vietnam War: "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it" said an unattributed US commander after bombing and shelling the town of Bến Tre into oblivion to rout the Vietcong.

It's very doubtful whether Colchester needs another restaurant near to Jumbo and whether the benefit is worth vandalism of a Grade II* listed structure. Restaurants are extremely risky financially and there are no guarantees that a museum or the restaurant would be viable enough to create a net growth in jobs. If a restaurant at the top of Jumbo was hugely successful, that itself might cause another local restaurant to close because of the mechanism of competitive capitalism that Conservative dogma expounds as beneficial.

Local residents who have replied to the proposals on the planning website object to the additional traffic, noise and light pollution this kind of conversion would cause. The planning policy for Colchester said Jumbo was in an area reserved for cultural facilities long before Braithwaite plunked down £330,000 to buy it.

This policy is described as ‘a key tool’ in the determination of planning applications.'Save Jumbo' campaigner Brian Light of the Balkerne Tower Trust pointed out at the planning meeting; "flats and offices are not cultural facilities and would transform the present cultural oasis into a busy and noisy commercial area. At night, four huge glowing panels would be seen, unconnected to each other or to the shape of the original building."

Ben has claimed on his blog there is "no other funded, viable plan on the table."

Ahem, nothing of Braithwaite's proposals were in the public domain until 24 hours before the planning meeting. Were Ben and Darius were privy to them, though they claim to be working entirely independently of Braithwaite? Long before Braithwaite bought Jumbo there were other proposals and studies done. The most developed proposal came from the Balkerne Tower Trust who were an unsuccessful bidder when Jumbo was sold at a snap auction in February 2006. It is not the fault of the council or anybody else but Jumbo's succession of owners that Jumbo has been neglected while they played pass the parcel with a very speculative investment.

It is perhaps the fault of government policy (incidentally a Conservative one then) that ratepayers' assets can be sold on the open market to people with no plans to use them except the hope they can find some way to make a profit. 

None of Jumbo's owners have been prepared to entertain offers to put Jumbo to a use that would protect and preserve it for generations to come while their Jumbo property bubble grew. Darius and Ben's assertion that Jumbo has lain unused is untrue. It was utilised as a 'prayer tower' by an evangelical church from 1988 to 1995 who purchased it from Anglian Water. They then sold it at a loss to a property developer. Perhaps a portent of the danger ahead.

Several members of BWTAS recognised Braithwaite’s last minute museum proposal as an empty promise with no guarantees that it could be delivered if the plans were approved. It distinctly smells of the oft-used ruse of public use to satisfy objectors which could be rescinded for any number of reasons later on. Were it a serious proposal, the last six years should have been spent developing a consortium of heritage partners to put together a solid proposal to the planning committee rather than offering up a few figures plucked from the air by the architect.

It's impossible to say if any cultural or heritage bodies would support the Balkerne Tower Trust in taking on Jumbo because no one has ever been offered possession of Jumbo on anything like viable and reasonable terms. In his three minutes at the microphone at the planning meeting Brian Light pointed out the idiocy of the trust being invited to set up the museum and have their volunteers to staff it and pay over £3000 pounds a month rent for the mere three months it would be open a year. "Meanwhile the applicant will collect the admission charges and £500 a time for frequent ‘corporate events’. As a charity we don’t wish – and could not – subsidise a privately owned museum over which we have no control, and which could close at any time" he said.

Councillor Nick Barlow who opposed the plan has also stated on his twitter feed that this "public access (was) an afterthought and not guaranteed permanently."

Andrew Erskine, a cultural and creative economy consultant to the public and private sector also said on his twitter feed; "Personally feel this should be a public asset first. Not suitable to turn into flats etc."

The business plan, like any, is full of suppositions. It imagines an observatory and display above an office block and flats can draw the same visitor numbers as the Colchester Natural History museum year on year. It should be noted that the museum is free to enter while the proposed average entry for Jumbo is £3, so it would be higher for some and less for others. I would think £30,000 for exhibits is woefully insufficient and there is no mention of the costs of the observatory. Brian Light noted that Braithwaite's agent claimed "there is no public interest in the history, only in the views". That history is what the Balkerne Tower Trust and BWTAS exist to celebrate.

Braithwaite’s conversion plan offers nothing innovative or creative that exploits the assets of Jumbo to make it a truly outstanding and UNIQUE attraction. His plans would just make Jumbo just another converted water tower. His business plan should consider the number of visitors to the Atlas Works or the Foredown tower in Sussex for a better comparison. I don't think even I would pay £5 to go into Jumbo more than once just to gawp at the rooftops of Colchester and see some old photographs and visit yet another overpriced museum gift shop and sandwich bar. Would having a look through a telescope be yet another £1 for 3 minutes? I can imagine the annoyance of parents at such Barnum antics. Were it not the need for Braithwaite to salvage his reckless investment, there would no need to set the bar so high.

Darius (and Ben presumably) said Jumbo could be Colchester's Eiffel Tower but the economic benefits offered is Colchester gets its own Canary Wharf without any public money required. Does Colchester really need that? If I recall the developer of Canary Wharf went bust spectacularly. It then got bailed out by billions in public investment for the transport infrastructure it lacked.

I sincerely wish that the Eiffel Tower concept proves to be the case but that can only happen if Jumbo is kept intact and visitors encounter knowledgeable guides along with displays inside the tank that bring the history of civil engineering and water supply to life, with the added attraction of viewing Colchester from a spectacular viewpoint. 

With income from the occasional charity fundraising abseil or corporate event, a heritage operator would could cover the cost of maintenance. As an office building with an observatory it will be an awful compromise and a much duller attraction. The need to recoup the exponentially higher costs of redevelopment will put pressure on the owner to maximise their revenue, so slowly squeezing out the 'heritage' uses. Braithwaite's cobbled together museum is set to fail and some might speculate that it is deliberate.

While the restoration of Jumbo would initially be expensive because of the years of neglect it is not completely a lost cause to find funding for that, perhaps meeting a corporate social responsibility remit, and once Jumbo is brought back to health, ongoing maintenance could be within the means of a charitable trust offering tours of the intact tower. Without planning permission the value of Jumbo was assessed at £0.00 so a heritage operator could never secure a mortgage for £330,000 to buy out Braithwaite AND cover the cost of restoration against the value of Jumbo.

The uses that the Balkerne trust have proposed for Jumbo make it a very good neighbour for local residents, businesses and nearby cultural attractions and they will improve foot-fall and 'dwell' time of visitors to Colchester's cultural and heritage quarter whereas Mr Braithwaite's plans bring conflict and nuisance with increased noise, traffic, light pollution and commercial competition for nearby cafes, of which there are plenty enough. The difference in the carbon impact of wholly heritage use and Mr Braithwaite’s are significant as well especially in the conversion stage.

It is to the credit of Colchester's planning committee that they refused to acquiesce to a developer whose supporters cite the deliberate dilapidation as a just cause to allow further vandalism of Jumbo. Had they gone on the web, any developer who wanted to take on Jumbo would know full well it was a complex and difficult proposition offering very few options for adaptive reuse EXCEPT for the long standing ambition of the Balkerne Tower Trust. Interviewed shortly after his purchase, Braithwaite said he did not know anything about Jumbo or its history - he just liked it. Colchester should not be held hostage to a developer's folly. 

Nat Bocking
Gen. Sec. BWTAS

p.s. I would be happy to link to or post a response or make corrections required.