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Borough and county councils in row over restrictive covenant and proposed student housing scheme

The threat of a legal dispute between Colchester Borough Council and Essex County Council has emerged over a proposed development for the site of the town’s former bus station.

Essex holds a restrictive covenant on the site limiting its use to local authority purposes and has declined to lift this to allow developer Alumno to proceed with a scheme for student housing, retail and a hotel.

The town’s Conservative MP Will Quince said in a tweet: “A legal dispute has begun between Colchester Borough Council and Essex County Council over the third party rights over the Queen St / Alumno development proposal. Essex County Council is right to fight for residents on this issue.”

In a separate message Mr Quince said: “I have just spoken with the leader of Essex County Council who has confirmed that their position remains unchanged and they will not agree to lift the covenant.”

Colchester Liberal Democrats, who have minority control of the council, said in a statement: “Many have disliked the proposed development behind Queen Street. We understood why. A new theatre or cultural centre would be fantastic. But they cost money and can struggle to make money.

“Now the heat is on the Lib Dem led council to walk away. But if we do so, we lose a £40m investment and 60 new jobs. And we lose the vibrancy, footfall and extra spending power that students, families, visitors bring, and which will help many business keep open and able to employ others. We must if we can stay the course - to put jobs and business first.”

A petition on the Change website with 980 signatures said Colchester should “agree that it will not use any legal powers available to them to override or extinguish Essex County Council’s restrictive covenant on the site off of Queen Street to allow Alumno to build. We say no to the Alumno development plans!”

At a cabinet meeting last week, Colchester's monitoring officer Andrew Weavers told members that while the cabinet had no role in planning, “this was not a planning issue. The issues were about the council acting as a landowner and these were matters for cabinet”.

He said the council could use powers under s203 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and that while planning conditions should have been discharged when these powers were exercised they need not be at the point the decision to appropriate was taken.

Mr Weavers said Essex had formally objected to the appropriation process and asked him to exercise powers under section 5 of the Local Government and Housing Act to stop the cabinet taking this step on the basis that it could contravene the law.

But cabinet minutes said: “After taking his own legal advice, he did not believe that was the case and that the cabinet could continue to consider the report.”

The cabinet rejected Essex’s concerns and resolved to go ahead with removing the covenant.

This was because “appropriation will facilitate the redevelopment of the site which would bring a number of benefits to the locality and contribute to the achievement of those adopted local plan planning policies that are relevant and the adopted St Botolph’s Master Plan which together promote the regeneration of the area to bring economic, social and environmental well-being benefits”.

Mark Smulian

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