Have you been past Boundary Road recently? You can’t but help notice that the multi-story car park being built up on campus is almost near completion.
Ahh – but what of the promised cycle path between Wivenhoe and the University?
On yer bike, etc.
You may remember that the controversial passing of the planning permission to build the car park was sold on the back of the idea to put in place a bicycle path linking Town and Gown. At best it sent out a mixed message about sustainable [URGH] transport. Slightly more worrying was the way in which the University went about the way of continued expansion.
The deal was very much brokered by Cllr Julie Young of Essex County Council, recognising that inviting a bit of back scratching from the University was the only way that the University and Wivenhoe would ever be connected by bicycle.
The total funding available to Colchester Borough Council via ECC for ALL Highway improvements in the current budget is £1m. Clocking in at a cool quarter of a million pounds, a cycle path was not surprisingly low on the list.
Speaking at the Planning meeting on 24th May, Cllr Young told CBC:
“Wivenhoe wants a cycling link. This is too expensive to deliver. The new budget for Colchester from Essex County Council is £1m. Can I access this for the cycle path? No I can’t.”
By whatever means necessary, etc, which for Wivenhoe to have a cycle path meant the compromise of allowing the University to build a multi-story car park right on the border of the town.
Planning permission was granted unanimously back in May, but on the strict premise that £250,000 was made available via Section 106 funding for the Wivenhoe bicycle path.
Which brings us back to the current Boundary Road situation with a car park almost complete and still no sign of even any initial planning work being undertaken for the Wivenhoe cycle path.
And so what went wrong?
For the record, the University HAS handed over the money to ECC to complete its side of the back scratching bargain. There is a strong argument that work on the car park shouldn’t have been allowed to commence until any cycle path is actually in place. The University is only playing by the rules of the games put in place by the CBC Planning Committee.
To find out what has been happening since that May meeting and the continued absence of any cycle path, FOI’s covering ECC and CBC were filed.
“Please can you provide me with all correspondence between Essex County Council / Colchester Borough Council and any public or private partner regarding the proposed cycle path between Wivenhoe and the University of Essex.Please include emails sent or received from council officers, as well as emails sent or received by Borough councillors.
I would also like to see any minutes for meetings about the cycle path. Please make sure that this search includes any correspondence with the University of Essex.”
You can’t directly FOI a private company such as the University. A popular technique is to FOI an accountable body to see what data it holds about the non FOI-able organisation.
As for the outcome?
A huge amount of data had been returned, which to be honest, doesn’t exactly tell us anything conclusive. What emerges though is slight uncertainty, possible confusion and even a perceived lack of will to build the cycle path between Wivenhoe and the University.
It is interesting to observe that the first mention of a possible cycle path dates back to April 2011, and perhaps of even greater interest is that the request comes from the office of the VC:
Rosemary Wilkins, the Cycling Officer at ECC replies that there is a “bit of a wild goose chase” trying to find anything out, and that there is no priority funding.
Fast forward to January 2012 and the cycle path is back on the agenda. Cllr Young asks for an update from ECC.
Rosemary Wilkins replied:
And so good news in that not as much land as originally anticipated is required, with a reduced cost as well. No funding is available at this stage, and so no approach to the landowner has been made.
At the end of January 2012, Rosemary Wilkins once again wrote to Cllr Young with the first hint of the Cycle Lite compromise being mentioned:
The will for the Wivenhoe cycle path seems to be there, if not the funding. It is almost as if all concerned are just waiting for a grand building project in the pipeline from the University in which to balance and offset the project.
Any idea what that could be…?
Which brings us to a meeting between Cllr Young and Andrew Nightingale, the Property Director at the University during February of 2012.
The University is “uneasy” about freeing S106 funds from the proposed car park. The suggestion is to eat into the Knowledge Gateway S06 allowance, a move that many have viewed as robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Ever the diplomat, Cllr Young suggested that opposition to the car park could be “tempered” if the University made all the right sounds about a cycle path.
The first mention of the Cycle Lite figures are uncovered in the FOI data for 16th February 2012. Simon Walker, the Design Engineer at ECC mails Cllr Young:
An interesting aside to the Toucan situation is that all were working at the time under the assumption that the new Health Centre for Wivenhoe would be built opposite the exact same location.
Never assume, Comrades…
Cllr Young liked the suggestion, and attempted to sell the idea to the University:
Not so much Beware the Ides of March, but the following month we get an insight into how the planning process actually works for local government. It isn’t as simple as taking an objective approach. Funding is just as fundamental as common sense it seems.
With a planning application for a possible car park yet to be formally submitted, ECC Highways is already advising the University how to put in place a smooth passage for the proposed scheme:
The email thread switches from Chelmsford to Colchester, with Brad Heffer, the Principal Planning Officer at CBC explaining the current thinking of the University. It seems that a bluff was called, and a rather big one at that:
The response is for CBC to show some teeth and not cave in to any car park demands:
‘Delicate negotiations’ seem to have been in place throughout April 2012, leading to something of a U-turn by the University come the start of May. With the planning app for the car park soon to be considered by CBC, both sides appear to be close to a compromise.
In a letter sent by the Director of Estate Management at the University to the CBC Principle Planning Officer, it is agreed that a payment of £250k will be made, but from the KNOWLEDGE GATEWAY pot of gold.
It is also made quite clear that this WON’T be paid if the car park planning app isn’t passed, plus the payment only becomes due once work actually starts on the proposed cycle path.
Acknowledgement is made that the robbing Peter to pay Paul situation will be made good on the Knowledge Gateway, but with the warning that the economy is buggered and the University may even “revisit” the S106 wonga in the future.
With just two days before the CBC Planning Committee is due to meet, doubts appear to remain over the future expansion of the University by ECC. Rosemary Wilkins poses the question on 22nd May 2012:
The expansion / cost question was well and truly answered by the CBC Planning Committee two days later with the unanimous 12:0 passing of the application for the University to build a multi-story car park on campus.
Paying back Peter and Paul (or is it the other way round?) enters more confusion on 29th June 2012. The Principle Planning Officer at CBC states:
And so with planning permission granted for the multi-story car park funding (from somewhere…) in place for the Wivenhoe cycle path, work now turns towards purchasing the land for the cycle path.
We’re all clear on who’s paying for this, aren’t we.
At least the University is sticking to its side of the bargain, paying up front with the cash, before work on the cycle path has even started:
Rosemary Wilkins confirmed the following in an email to me on 5th November:
“The funding has been transferred to ECC and currently we are working to have it added to the capital programme so that we can spend it.
So the next steps will be as follows:
Add the funding to the capital programme within Highways (this should be done at the beginning December).
Complete and agree a project mandate and brief with the delivery team (basically commission Essex Highways to deliver the cycleway).
Agree dates for the final design and construction (currently this is looking more likely at a 2013 delivery for construction due to workload and possible land issues).
Complete the design so that the consultation can begin and land purchased (this may take some time and we will need to identify additional funding sources for the land purchase).”
Which brings us almost full circle with the University pressing for a cycle path via the planners, albeit via a rather convoluted – and particularly clever – route for funding.
Speaking to me at the end of November, new VC Anthony Forster said:
“Clearly one of the important elements will be putting in a cycle path between Wivenhoe and the University – something that we feel very strongly indeed. The University has provided a quarter of a million pounds for that.
We are now lobbying hard to the Council who are responsible for putting the cycle path in place to make sure that this happens as quickly as possible. At our Council meeting on Monday we spent quite a bit of time talking about this. Having provided £250,000, we’re very keen that the cycle path goes in as quickly as possible”
And that pretty much brings us up to date in December 2012. The University has paid the S106 wonga – although from which pot of planning gold is not entirely clear; ECC is in receipt of the money but the usual local gov red tape is slowing down plans for the cycle path.
Meanwhile the University is about to open up the shutters on the new multi-story car park along Boundary Road. Overlooking the fact that a culture of car dependency isn’t exactly being addressed by building a car park, the Wivenhoe cycle path exists in principle, if not in practise.
An integrated transport policy?
Still many gaps to fill…
Plus: Great background reading on CBC Planning via @nickjbarlow.