Building for the future in Southend
PUBLISHED: 11:57 04 November 2014 | UPDATED: 16:56 04 November 2014
Copyright 2012 Mulholland Media. All rights reserved
Southend is famous as one of the UK's classic seaside resorts, but, as Chris Penhall discovers, this family favourite has big plans for the future too
What springs to mind when you think of Southend? The longest pleasure pier in the world? The Kursaal? Seafront arcades and fish and chips? Or maybe it is the beach huts of Thorpe Bay, the cockle sheds of Old Leigh and the wide green spaces of Belfairs Park and Nature Reserve?
For locals or regular visitors it is likely to be a combination of all of these things, and no doubt many more, but even this collection of iconic landmarks and experiences do not define the borough. Southend is also an affluent commuter town (voted in the top ten in a recent survey by estate agents, Savills) and home to the UK’s favourite airport, as voted for by readers of Which Magazine.
The High Street has a higher than average occupancy rate and a new weekly market, while Southend is also home to popular annual cultural events such as Leigh Folk Festival and Village Green in Chalkwell Park.
Alongside this thriving picture, Southend does also have its pockets of deprivation familiar to many seaside communities, as well as areas in need of redevelopment and improvement. And there lies the challenge: how to harness its contradictions and diverse assets in order to drive its economy forward.
Southend Borough Council is working in conjunction with private enterprise and with the help of Government grants in order to further improve employment opportunities and investment in the area.
‘It’s a great place to live,’ says Ron Woodley, leader of Southend Borough Council. ‘Its got the seafront, leisure, restaurants moving in, nice apartments being built, a new hotel under construction and another one in the pipeline. Jobs will be created in the new med tech business park, which will be developed next to the airport and we are looking to regenerate a whole section of the town in the Queensway area.’
A cohesive plan for the future is vital to encourage new employers and new residents, Ron explains. ‘We have to have a vision, so people who live here or who are moving in can see that and say, I want to stay here and bring up my children here. That generates a healthy economy and starts to attract big retailers into the town. In 20 years time I want a legacy of a vibrant new city that is culturally up there with the rest of the country.’
While the residential rental market in the town has been buoyant, the demand to buy new properties is now slowly picking up, according to Mike Gray, managing director of Dedman Gray Property Consultants.
‘Like in a lot of towns over the past few years, first-time buyers haven’t been rushing to get on the ladder generally.They now are looking to buy nice flats in nice areas to a high spec and are looking to climb the ladder more slowly,’ he says. ‘There is now more development than there has been for five or six years and the number of enquiries and viewings is picking up.’
As well as this, the redevelopment of Victoria Avenue and the centre of the town is hugely important in revitalising the economy in the long term, believes Mike. ‘Victoria Avenue in the 1960s and 1970s was a business centre,’ he says, ‘but the businesses have changed and shifted, leaving a void of empty space. It is not known as residential, but planning is encouraging development in the area so that will come. The kind of city living it provides, close to travel links and amenities, will generate a need for more cafes and restaurants and the night time economy will benefit.’
The Forum is another example of how the town centre is being revitalised. Highly commended in the ‘best use of arts, culture or sport in placemaking’ category in the National Placemaking Awards, it’s a new joint library and learning hub in Elmer Square.
Fronted by a new Big Screen Showcase for arts and culture, the £27million development provides a hub of knowledge, learning and culture, incorporating a joint public and academic library and a new home for the Focal Point Art Gallery.
On the edge of the town, the airport caters for more than 900,000 passengers per annum, having had £130 million invested in it in the last three years, and with it has come increased investment in the aviation and overhaul sector.
Southend Airport managing director, Roger Clement, says: ‘It’s not every day you get the chance to build a new airport for London, but the Stobart Group had a unique opportunity in Southend. It is a fantastic location as it enables us to offer a fast and frequent service to the heart of London at least every 20 minutes for our passengers.’
Southend itself is an established tourist destination, but it has had to evolve in order to attract visitors. As well as being a favourite for day trips, it has also focused on attracting people who stay longer and spend more money in the borough.
£7.6million has been invested in the City Beach development between The Pier and The Kursaal, and a grant from the Government’s Costal Communities Fund will be used to create a lagoon at Three Shells Beach, allowing safer access to the water at all times, and a Seaside Apprenticeship Scheme will provide experience of seafront tourism related activities.
The £6million Grosvenor Casino opened recently as did new steak and lobster restaurant, Bourgee, which was given a grant and business support from the council.
Celebrity chef and one of Bourgee’s directors, Mark Baumann, believes that Southend has a very exciting future, which was a key factor in the decision to locate there.
‘It is a busy town with 6 million visitors a years,’ says Mark, ‘and is host to an amazing and eclectic mix of architecture and inhabitants. The regeneration process here is truly unbelievable with global casinos, hotel chains and investment in property everywhere. We believe Southend is in the process of becoming the new Brighton and we are delighted to be here at the dawn of such an exciting beginning, rather than last in.’