A PLEA has gone out to archaeologists not to squander the chance to build a first-class visitor centre for Colchester’s Roman circus.

Colchester Council approved plans to convert the old sergeants’ mess into a heritage centre, flats and offices, but sent a clear message it expected the building to be used to its full potential.

Members of the planning committee said they were disappointed with the application by Colchester Archaeological Trust because they had expected more of the building, in Le Cateau Road, to be used for public education.

The committee meeting heard only eight per cent of the building would be used as an interpretive centre to help the public understand the importance of the circus.

The rest would be used as offices for the trust, a house and flats, a public tearoom and shop.

Bill Hayton, who co-ordinated fundraising efforts for £200,000 towards the project, spoke against the application.

He said the plan, as it stood, did not reflect the shared vision for a centre to promote the most important Roman site in the East of England, and the only Roman circus in the UK.

It did not give enough floorspace to educational facilities and would not draw visitors, he added.

Mr Hayton said: “I don’t want this project to fail, but if it proceeds in its current form, it will fail. I would ask the trust to re-engage and revise its plans and work together with the town people to make it a jewel in the town’s crown.”

Committee member Peter Chillingworth said: “When I first saw these plans I thought ‘yes, this is great’, but after hearing the speaker (Mr Hayton), I’m not so sure.

“There will inevitably be some residential development for financial reasons, but I do hope the applicant might make some modifications and improve this for the sake of the town.”

Councillor Andrew Ellis said: “It could be so much more than just a centre for the Roman circus.

“There is a wealth of history in Colchester and it could be a mini museum.

“I’m disappointed because there is so much more that could be done with this building, and I hope what we see before us won’t be set in stone.”

Theresa Higgins, committee chairman, said many councillors, including her, had been involved in the fundraising campaign, which was supported by the Gazette.

But she urged them to deal with the proposal solely on planning terms.

She reminded the committee the former Army mess already had planning permission to be used entirely for homes, and Taylor Wimpey could exercise that option, if councillors turned down the trust’s application.

The committee conditionally approved the plans because it wanted to secure public access to the Roman circus starting gates.

Philip Crummy, director of Colchester Archaeological Trust, was not at the meeting, but said afterwards the trust would have to carefully look at any conditions imposed to see how they would affect the viability of the scheme.