There’s a lot being said about the future of high streets and even more about why they are in decline etc. However, if the customer finds the supermarket or the out of town shopping centre more to their liking they will shop there. To get them back to the high street it has to offer something better and very few do- it has to reinvent itself.
So do we need more shops? Personally I think we need more shops like we need a hole in our heads! We have plenty across the town: in the town centre, in areas like Leigh, Thorpe Bay, Westcliff and Shoebury as well as along many of our main roads like the London Road, Sutton Road and Southchurch Road and in numerous smaller parades of shops. What we need is to see some rationalisation of the retail offer and some improvements to what is left in certain areas.
To keep our retail offer vibrant, and we have been very lucky so far, I tender the following, I’ve kept it simple and so should the Council!
- Reduce parking charges in off road car parks. Lets say £1.00 for 3 hours and more car parks to be converted to pay on foot. No loss of parking spaces either. Dedicate one car park for workers- say Seaway and on Monday to Friday offer special rate permit parking, all other users pay the standard prices.
- Revisit the High Street, it’s about 10 years since the top end was done and there are a few areas that are showing their age-namely the square cobbled bits and the street seating. I am not suggesting an expensive make over, just replace the cobbles with paving to match the existing slabs, tidy up the broken paviours that have been filled with bitumen and over the next 3 years replace the seating.
- Regenerate the side streets off the High Street, Clifftown and Elmer have been done, now in the same style get on with Warrior Sq Road, the stub end of York Road, Queens Road and Whitegate. Keep it simple, use the SBC palette of materials and use SBC officers to oversee this work so no need for consultants.
- London Road / Broadway, the plans were all agreed, as soon as the Football Club S106 money becomes available this must be a priority, but not via expensive consultants and contractors, use SBC officers and simplify the design using the same palette of materials as are currently in use in the town centre.
- Create more interesting areas in the High Street, do a simple make over of Victoria Circus, use the natural slope to create an ‘amphitheatre’ effect, plant some trees and perhaps consider an large awning in the bowl of the ‘amphitheatre’ keep it simple but effective. It can always be revisited when funds are more abundant.
- Use lighting where ever possible to create spectacular night time effects ask for lighting as part of all planning consents.
- Consider matching the area outside the new library ‘Elmer Square’ to Victoria Circus, simple palette, clean lines, fantastic lighting and lots of trees!
- Accept that shopping habits are changing, allow more cafés, services etc. Allow the loss of retail in agreed sectors along the major roads, indeed actively encourage it.
- Look at a few minor improvements in the out of town centre shopping areas- repainting, de cluttering etc.
Now for some more ambitious ideas/comments.
- To produce a vibrant shopping area that can compete in part with Bluewater, Lakeside and now Stratford, the town needs to attract some ‘better’ shops to the Town Centre. All around the town centre are run down properties, bedsits and hostels. Single mums in bedsits, drug and alcohol addicts, the homeless and those on multiple benefits do not have cash to spend in shops, therefore, when a store looks at Southend it does not come, unless it is a pound shop or similar that is.
- To redress the balance we need to build more dwellings that are of sufficient quality to attract those with a few bob in their pockets.
- Completely overhaul the tower blocks in the NE quadrant of the town, use the land provided when Queensway House goes to kick start this renewal, put in a multi storey car park to release Warriors at a later date. Ensure the dwelling mix is 60% or more open market.
- Deal with Victoria Ave, restore or rebuild, I don’t really care, but get the ground floors as active spaces and the upper floors into open market housing and/or commercial use. Landscape the entire street as a whole to allow full and easy passage around the all the buildings.
- Purchase all the empty stores to north of Queens Road and relocate those that wish to remain in business from the south side. Demolish the then emptied sector between the WHS Bridge and Elmer Road, build new open market dwellings here.
- Do whatever is needed to get the Prudential building back into use as commercial, dwellings and / or hotel rooms and if that means selling a few square metres of the highway to them- get on with it.
- Stop the requirement for the provision of affordable dwellings (a misnomer if ever there was one) for development in the Town Centre that has 9 or more units, take the cash instead and buy up some of the worst properties in the surrounding streets, revamp them and hand them over to SEH or another decent social landlord.
- Offer BHS a new site over Tylers or on Tylers if Seaway is turned into a multi storey. Demolish existing BHS, create a new open space and clad the north edge with small, very small shops. Possibly do something similar with the northern corner of Clifftown from the High Street through to the station.
- If the Council must develop the Alexander and Clarence Street car parks and frankly I have never agreed with this idea, (why get rid of the most popular car park when replacing the spaces is nigh on impossible?) then they should put a multi storey on the Clarence site, comercial below if they wish, a large car park here will help the proposed museum too, and develop out the Alexander Street car park with smaller shops and flats, but do not do it piecemeal, deal with Market Place, use the old Cotgrove building to punch through to the High Street, deal with the old mortuary buildings, the old ABC cinema etc.
Now I hear you asking, that’s all very well but who will buy the new dwellings and where will the money come from?
Southend is a lively place to live, cheaper than London, it has award winning beaches, water sports, cinemas and theatres, sunshine, fantastic parks and sports facilities, there are 4 stations within the central area and the City of London is around an hour away or less. Council tax is low, we have national chains and in our suburbs (sorry but that word does sum up the areas) and side streets we have local shops, cafés, bars and restaurants a plenty. We have good schools, low pollution and great opportunities for entrepreneurs. What we lack is good local jobs so let’s do what Southend has done for years- attract the commuter and help rather than hinder access to the stations whether it be by bus, bike, car or even foot. Put Southend on the map for the right reasons, bring in younger people and the local jobs will follow.
Market what we offer fully, by using a bike at weekends or the trains and you don’t need the car to get from Shoebury, East Beach to Leigh. Within a few miles you are in green belt with some excellent equestrian facilities, country pubs and coastal walks, we have golf courses and now we have a working airport too!
Not many towns can offer all these on the doorstep of a world city- London
I could go on, but you get the picture. So we need all the local businesses, organisations and the local media and press on board and to go out and sell Southend, we need to stop the sniping and negativity of some habitual commentators who seem to take delight in knocking back all that is achieved or aspired to. Professionally market Southend far and wide and especially in London like it has never been done before.
More dwellings equals more council tax, more prosperity equals less dependancy. Talk to Boris, we do not want to become a dumping ground but a first choice for first time buyers and young families. The Government is offering grants- the Town Centre Partnership could apply for one. Talk to business, not just local, to get sponsorship for some of the projects- after all we have the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery so why not persuade Dubai Ports or Stobarts to sponsor a project. After all where there’s a will there’s a way!
Let’s celebrate Southend on Sea – its a great place to be!