Friday, 7 December 2018

Seaway carpark development - part 2

In my last post I commented on the controversy currently raging with regard to the proposed development of the Seaway car park. I thought it might be helpful in better facilitating a proper debate for me to comment on my previous involvement.
I would make clear that I will not disclose any information which was or remains confidential but will refer to the council minutes which are publically available on its website.

The motivation behind the scheme was a recognition as to the ongoing plight of the High Street, the strength of the seafront as a draw to the town to include not only the beach but a number of highly effective seafront businesses, the strength of the wider cultural appeal across the Town and the over dependence of the Council on car park revenue.

I have previously been critical of the recent changes to car park charges and I stand by those criticisms however what has to be recognised by those who claim that charges should be significantly reduced or abandoned is that for historical reason these charges make an important contribution to the council’s income and with reducing central government support and increasing demand on council services such as social care the money has to come from somewhere. Accordingly what was needed was to try to generate alternative income sources with as little risk as possible to make the car park income less significant and allow substantial reductions in charges to be made.

Seaway was identified as an important link between the seafront and town centre and whilst full on certain days there were also times when this important strategic site was underused. Accordingly this scheme was developed as a possible option with a new independent cinema operator providing a more focussed selection of films and supported with a new multi storey carpark, residential, some business use and improved access to the seafront. This was intended to work to the potential benefit of both the High Street as it attempts to modify its offer and layout and the seafront traders and strengthen the all year offer with benefit to the Town as a whole.

As is confirmed in the recorded minutes:
1. The proposed deal was subject to external certification for compliance with S123 Local Government Act 1972 which provides, amongst other things: Except with the consent of the Secretary of State, a council shall not dispose of land under this section, otherwise than by way of a short tenancy, for a consideration less than the best that can reasonably be obtained;
2. There should be a fixed timescale for delivery;
3. The leisure development would be delivered ahead of the occupancy of the residential accommodation;
4. The Council’s then revenue return from the site would be retained and improved with a share of the long-term income from the development.
5. Any change to the Heads of Terms would be considered in consultation with all Group Leaders.

I cannot comment on the capital aspect for the reasons I have mentioned however the key triggers for the scheme were the improvement of the Council’s revenue return and the enhancement of leisure facilities within the Town, building on the seafront and creating a better link with the High Street. It was also acknowledged in debate that alternative car parking provision in the vicinity of the seafront would be needed.

That was where things stood when the Conservatives lost control and I stepped down from the Council. I do not know what happened subsequently other than I understand that out preferred cinema operator withdrew with obvious ramifications and the scheme has still to be delivered.

I await with interest confirmation from Cllr Ron Woodley, who as the next leader signed off the deal in November 2014, and the current administration as to where we are now as it is quite possible that the economic and practical challenges and opportunities which existed in January 2015 no longer apply.

Seaway Car Park development - part 1

The Leigh edition of the Oracle dropped through my letterbox recently and I note that it included an article by Paul Thompson criticising the Council on its plan to redevelop the Seaway Carpark. The objection was based on the loss of car parking spaces and the assertion that, in effect, the Council had failed to strike an appropriate financial deal.

This article followed various comments and tweets by a number of other local businessmen and residents along similar lines. At present I have still to see a response by the current Administration justifying their approach to the scheme. I fully appreciate that this is in part because aspects of the deal are financially and commercially sensitive and therefore confidential however I would still encourage the relevant portfolio holders to reassure residents as to their stance in general terms on both the economics of the scheme and its current status bearing in mind the obvious delays.

It would also be interesting to hear Cllr Ron Woodley’s’ justification of his previous actions bearing in mind that the scheme was signed off by him. The deal was originally developed during my leadership of the council and in my next blog I will set out why in my view the decision was the right one to take at that time.

However in the meantime I am intrigued by Mr Thompson’s comment that “In November 2014 the new then leader of the council, Cllr Ron Woodley was advised by senior council officers to sign this agreement”.

I hope that Ron is not trying to evade responsibility for his part in this process. By November 2018 Ron had been Leader of the Council for 5 months, more than adequate to consider the merits of the scheme before authorising it to proceed. Equally significant when the Draft Heads of Agreement were approved by Cabinet on 6th January 2015 the item was then called in for detailed scrutiny by the relevant Scrutiny Committee the Chairman of which was Ron. The item was called in for further review at the following full council meeting at which he was also present and accordingly by November 2014 he was fully aware of the scheme and its pros and cons.

It is also the case that Ron regularly regaled other council members with confirmation as to his business and financial expertise and in such circumstances it is a little strange that he appears to be giving the impression that he was being led by council officers. Either he thought the deal was a good one which is why he signed it or he thought it was a bad one in which case why didn’t he block it. I cannot believe that he is suggesting for one minute that he did not understand what was being proposed or felt unable to stop it. So I would be interested to hear what he has to say on the matter and do hope that he will not attempt to hide behind officers which would hardly be consistent with the principle of “Ministerial responsibility” in so far as that applies to local government.

Friday, 21 September 2018

A new "bypass" - what goes around comes around!

I was delighted to see Cllr James Courtenay’s recent announcement (reported in the Echo) that as part of the Council’s 50 year strategy they are likely to include a new road linking from the A130 to ease access to the Town Centre and east of the Town.
I fully support this aspiration although it may be more accurate to describe this as being half way through a 100 year strategy rather than the beginning of a 50 year one.

Talk of a new access road has been on the table for some years, the theory being that if there was a new link road to the town centre and eastern areas the A127 could give concentrate on the west of the town leaving the A13 as a local feeder.

Back in I think the late 70s or 80s the then senior council officer Peter Longden had a plan for a scheme along these lines and when I was Chairman of the Highways Committee of the then lower tier Southend Council in the early 90s there were discussions on the plan with Essex County Council as the then Highway Authority.

In my years as leader whilst funding was obtained for improvements to the junctions of the A127 it was always made clear to the funding agencies that this was a short term fix but the long term solution could only be provided by a new northern access road.

Indeed there was a third party group who were attempting to formulate a more limited scheme which as far as I am aware has not progressed.
Unfortunately the progress over the last 40/50 years has been limited for two main reasons. Firstly to construct the road would cost a very significant sum and would the commercial and economic return justify this. Secondly it would involve large areas of land across Rayleigh and Rochford in particular not owned by Southend Council or falling within the Council’s geographical area.

There is nothing wrong with rebooting an aspiration of this kind and I wish it every success however an answer still needs to be found on the issues of the economics and land acquisition.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Southend Town Centre - a good intiative and some possible solutions

Firstly congratulation to Cllr James Courtenay for announcing a High Street Summit on 24th September.This has the look of a member driven initiative and is to be welcomed.

My only reservations are that it is important that he included the commercial property owners or their representatives in the invitee list; unless this has been a long time in the planning has he allowed sufficient time to ensure he gets who he needs at the meeting; he needs to ensure that discussions do not get bogged down in standard “local government” nonsense; and as the Council’s press team are already indicating that they will be sharing the outcomes on 25th September I hope that the results will be properly considered and that this is not simply a PR exercise.

For what it is worth I believe that the action points should include some of the following:

1. Agreement as to the future identity of the High Street. The days of lengthy high streets with large national retailers appears to be at an end. These national chains previously killed off the independence and originality of many High Streets across the country and are now being put to the sword by the internet. I would hope that the vision is based on building on the Town’s strong Culture/Tourism offer, supplemented by a return to smaller and independent niche traders and artists, with an increase in residential development in the High Street above street level with perhaps a supermarket and specialist food stores to serve a growing central population. Perhaps the increasingly vacant central section of the High Street could form a centre for these grocery shops to include a new more central Town Centre;
2. To achieve the above the larger units need to be subdivided in to manageable units with residential above and with affordable rents and Business Rates;
3. The issues with safety and the perception of safety need to be addressed. I believe we need to return traffic to the north and south ends of the High Street (at least in the evenings and for buses and taxis) which linked to greater residential use would increase footfall and safety. The rough sleeper issue needs to be dealt with. Not only is this bad for those forced to sleep on the streets but their presence can be threatening to other users;
4. There needs improved police presence in the High Street ;
5. The Town Centre market is positive and should continue;
6. The Council needs to deal with the parking issues. Make the use of council car parks simple and reasonable (not only to those prepared to download an app!) and reduce charges in the Town Centre in recognition of the fact that at present the offer is not sufficient to merit the levels being sought.

In summary concentrate on developing Southend as a safe and fun place to go for leisure and niche shopping with a strong residential presence and let us positively market the strengths which I identified in my last post.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Southend Town Centre - the challenges, strengths and possible solutions (part 1)

With hardly a day passing without more negative news on the Country’s High Streets whether a s a result of the financial problems or closure of another famous chain or the continued rise of the internet it is unsurprising that concerns as to the future of Southend High Street continue to grow.

I suppose the easiest part of the debate is to identify the challenges the High Street faces. For me the main issues include:

1. The national decline of High Street shopping due to the challenge of the internet;
2. Southend’s geographical location literally “at the end of the line” which means that its shopping catchment does not extend significantly to all directions but mostly to the west where other competition lurks;
3. The linked issues with accessibility by car from outside the Borough boundaries;
4. The elongated length of the High Street itself with anchors by way of the shopping centres at both ends making any consolidation difficult;
5. The limited sideways growth caused in part by the length of the High Street itself;
6. The large size of many of the units on the High Street;
7. The high commercial rents and Business Rates;
8. The high cost of parking and the recent changes which have made the Council owned carparks and on street parking less user friendly;
9. The dependence of Southend Council’s budget on car park income;
10. The pedestrian layout of the High Street and poor finish of much of the work previously carried out, and the ramifications on the perception of safety – particularly at night;
11. The limited nature of the retail offer available – particularly in areas covering electrical goods, furniture, houseware etc. etc.
12. The large number of students in the High Street which some older shoppers can find intimidating.

I would stress that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list but provides a range of challenges which it is difficult to overcome.
By the same token the Town has obvious strengths:

1. Its seaside location;
2. Its strong leisure offer which tempts £6/7M visitors to the Town each year;
3. Its vastly improved range of hotels and other overnight accommodation;
4. Its wide and inviting range of restaurants; bars and clubs;
5. Its location at the “end of the line” giving it a potential catchment who face the same challenges getting out of the Town as visitors face getting in!
6. The University and College in the Town centre with the resulting footfall generated;
7. Its non-road transport infrastructure including 7 main line stations within the Borough on 2 lines and a growing airport;
8. The continuing presence of a significant number of potential entrepreneurs who are such a feature of South Essex life.

It is interesting that some factors have a potentially positive and negative effect.

Once again this is not intended to be an exclusive list. However it demonstrates why Southend has more reasons to feel positive than many other Town centres across the country.

So given a magic wand and influence over the Council, local commercial property owners, local entrepreneurs and Southend residents Well the Holdcroft masterplan will follow next week…..

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Divorce law and the need for change

It does appear that the recent furore over a wife who has been unable to obtain a divorce from her husband because his alleged “unreasonable behaviour” was insufficient to justify an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, is going to persuade the Government to try once again to tackle the challenge of changing our divorce law.

As a solicitor undertaking family work for over 36 years I support the view that reform is long overdue although whether our law makers are capable of arriving at a compromise acceptable both to those who demand modernisation and those seeking to protect the sanctity of marriage is more debateable.

Under the current law dating back to 1968 to obtain a divorce you must satisfy the court that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, and you can only do that by proving 1 of 5 grounds namely the other party’s adultery, the other party’s unreasonable behaviour, 2 years separation with the consent of the other party, 5 years separation, or 2 years desertion.
So assuming that the marriage has died but the parties are still living in the same property and no third part is involved the only option is an allegation of unreasonable behaviour (whether by agreement or not).

Unreasonable behaviour allegations must by definition give a very black and white view of a relationship when in reality the situation is rarely so one sided and more a varying shade of grey.

The reformers argue that if one spouse has finally concluded that the marriage is at an end then it has irretrievably broken down and this is certainly the case where both parties are agreed. They say if 2 adults can enter in to a marriage why should the state prevent them from exiting in a quick and non-confrontational manner if they wish. Others will argue that to make divorce too easy will undermine the institution taking away the incentive to work through difficulties and others will say that marriage is intended as a lifelong commitment.

I have seen it suggested that the easiest solution would be to reduce the separation periods mentioned above from 2 and 5 years to perhaps 6 months and a year. This may work in some cases but in the majority of cases I have handled over the years the parties could not afford to live separately until the entire financial package had been agreed and potentially the family home sold. The financial order is not made until an advanced stage of the divorce and so if the divorce can only be started post separation there is an obvious chicken and egg quandary.

The options are numerous but my preference would be to have 3 potential grounds:

1. Mutual consent – this would involve reliance being placed on a certificate of consent by the other spouse signed in the presence of a family lawyer to avoid the risk of duress;
2. The other party’s adultery;
3. Where the parties were not agreed and provable adultery had not taken place then a spouse should be entitled to lodge a certificate of intent with the court and say 6 months later could commence divorce proceedings. This would allow a spouse who is convinced that an irretrievable breakdown has taken place to commence action without the need for a lengthy separation or allegations against the spouse, but also building in a cooling off/reflection period.

I will be watching developments with interest!

Lib Dems - Why bother!

The recent conduct of Lib Dem Leader Vince Cable is quite bizarre. For the leader of a party whose only message to the public appears to be that they want to stay in the EU notwithstanding the referendum result, it now transpires that he missed an important Brexit vote because he was attending a meeting to discuss the possible formation of a new anti-Brexit party sitting in the middle of the political spectrum.

Well I must be missing something but I thought the Lib Dems regarded themselves as an anti-Brexit party sitting in the middle of the political spectrum so why would their leader contemplate participating in such a meeting even if more conveniently scheduled?

Perhaps he believes that the image of the Lib Dems is so damaged in the eyes of the electorate that the only solution is to morph it into a new party.

It seems that it is not only Mr Cable who is suffering this identity crisis. As someone who has been involved in local politics for years I am fully aware of the Lib Dems stock electioneering campaign tactic of moving from a left wing party to a right wing party and back depending on the character of the seat they are chasing.

Indeed local Lib Deb leader Carole Mulroney is happy to herald her party political credentials when fighting her Leigh seat in Southend Borough elections, taking advantage of the long links parts of Leigh have had with the historic Liberal party, but when seeking election to Leigh Town Council she implies to voters that she is an independent as that is in keeping with the public perception of a Town Council.

So perhaps Carole and her party leader have quite a bit in common - both apparently prepared to consider avoiding their connections to this damaged party if they think it can work to their advantage.