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The biggest regeneration scheme undertaken by Southend Council is moving forward after councillors voted in favour of fresh plans which include closing the Queensway underpass.
The decision to close the underpass has been a major topic of controversy for the £500million regeneration of the Queensway estate which is set to bring more than 1,600 new homes to the town centre.
But at a full council meeting on Thursday night, the Labour, Independent and Liberal Democrat joint administration won a narrow victory in a vote to approve plans that included closing the underpass and replacing it with a ground level roundabout.
The approval clears the way for a final planning application to be submitted by the council and its development partner Swan Housing.
Speaking at the meeting, Labour council leader Ian Gilbert told councillors that it is not possible to separate the housing from the highway aspect.
He said: “This was predicated from its first inception to now.
“We have a choice. Either we move ahead with this scheme, put half a billion pounds into the local economy, create hundreds of new jobs, new communities, a better environment and instil confidence that Southend is a place where people can do business and where the council can deliver.
“Or we can stop the scheme – because rejecting the highways means rejecting this scheme. That would lose government funding because the Government does not want delay.
“We also have a partnership signed on the basis that a particular road layout was acceptable to this council, so to say otherwise now would almost certainly be the end of the partnership.
“That would be back to square one, with residents’ hopes dashed and money lost. We can’t have more delay”
Conservative leader, Cllr Tony Cox, pushed back against the plans calling them a “disaster” for Southend.
He said: “If this was just the housing element, you will find all 50 members do not have a problem.
“It is sad in some ways there is a reluctance from this administration to even contemplate splitting these elements. We should see if we could proceed with housing, pause, then discuss highways because let’s face it this highway arrangement will be a disaster.
“This has disastrous consequences for those in east of town, for our high street, for our seafront, and dare I say it, this is just more anti-car policies from an anti-car administration.”
Cllr Dan Nelson (Con) also warned the change will cause “gridlock” and leave residents living in the new homes breathing in air pollution.
Cllr Cox went on to call for the plans to be reviewed by members of the cabinet but his proposal was defeated and the plans were approved.
Cllr Matt Dent (Lab) called the regeneration scheme the reason he got into politics and said he was “delighted” to see it move forward. Stephen George (Lab) also called it a “once in a generation opportunity”.
A planning application will now need to be submitted to the council where all elements of the plan, including the underpass, will be scrutinised before planning permission can be given.