COLCHESTER has changed a lot over the years.

The town is one of the fastest growing in the country and considered by many to be the fastest growing in the east.

This means it is no stranger to development of all kinds.

Whether it is a new supermarket, a new housing estate or a new cinema, there's always something in the pipeline for the town.

But some of development's are more controversial than others.

And in Colchester there is one upcoming development which stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of controversy.

It is Alumno's proposed redevelopment of land off Queen Street, considered part of the town's so-called cultural quarter.

It is set to bring 336-student rooms, an 87-bed Travelodge, retail units and new public open space to the area.

But just why is it so controversial?

The plans initially surface in 2018 when it was revealed the Alumno Group wanted to create a new student flats development in Colchester.

The chosen Queen Street site has been empty since the closure of the town's old bus station and has become something of an eyesore for the town.

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  • How the development could look from Priory Street

Soon after the plans were revealed opposition started.

In fact, before even a planning application was submitted, protestors were gathering outside the town hall.

Plans were officially submitted in the summer, sparking further protest and complaint.

Templars flared over the plans when once councillor hit out at opponents of the scheme, criticising the "misinformation" being put forward by "clueless far left Labour Corbyn activists".

But the opposition to the plans was crossing the political divide.

In fact the Conservative ward councillors at the time, Darius Laws and Simon Crow, were outspoken critics (and still are), as is Conservative MP Will Quince.

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  • The development borders Firstsite in Colchester

Record levels of objection

The planning application itself drew well over 800 objections from residents and critics of the scheme.

Businesses in the area also criticised the plans including the owners of the iconic Greyfriars Hotel.

The opposition was so great that Alumno returned to the drawing board, at least in part, before returning with a new iteration of the scheme.

D-Day soon approached and in February 2019, the plans went before Colchester Council's planning committee.

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  • The view across Firstsite and the development

D-Day for development

At a packed planning committee meeting, councillors heard arguments from both sides.

After heated debate councillors unanimously rejected the proposals on the grounds of the design and disabled access.

Celebrations from campaigners were muted, however, with then deputy leader of the council proclaiming "the ball was now in Alumno's court".

More ideas for the area came forward, but in June Alumno announced its decision to appeal the rejection to a Government planning inspector.

Decision overturned

In the run up to the appeal, the details of a controversial lease agreement Colchester Council signed with the developer were released.

Campaigners anger grew as it was revealed the council would receive less than £1 million for a 250-year lease of the site, which is one of the most significant in the town centre.

Despite originally wanting the plans to go ahead Colchester Council did spend cash on defending their committee's decision at the appeal.

But the decision to reject was overturned by Mr Middleton in December 2019.

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  • How the development could look

So where are we now?

Since the decision to reject the plans was overturned a lot has gone on in the background but no work has started on site.

One of the big sticking points is a covenant Essex County Council holds over the town's old bus station.

The covenant protects the area and County Hall has so far refused to budge.

But Colchester Council's cabinet has now approved using legal powers to temporarily remove access rights for residents and businesses in the area to allow construction to begin.

There are fears similar legal powers are set to be used to remove this restrictive covenant.

There is clearly a long way to go and negotiations between the two councils are said to be ongoing.

Colchester Council's business boss David King recently spoke out in support of the plans.

He says they will bring between £2 million and £3 million a year into the town.

With Covid ravaging town centres across the UK, it is clear a plan is needed for the site.

But public opposition still appears to be against the new student flats development going ahead.

There is also a legal row brewing between Colchester Council and Essex County Council after the appropriation move. 

The row looks unlikely to end any time soon as the development just seems to get more and more controversial.

What do you think? Do you want to see the Alumno development go ahead?

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