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…..