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Coronavirus is causing a “massive economic shock” to Southend and the only way out is to push forward with the biggest regeneration projects in decades, the council leader has said.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, unemployment in Southend has more than doubled, the council has seen losses of £3million each month and High Street businesses have been left fighting for survival.
Economic recovery is now the biggest challenge for Southend council leader Ian Gilbert who is pinning his hopes on a series of major projects that will completely transform the town.
He said: “Clearly no one has ever been through anything like this. It has had a huge economic impact and we’ve seen the jobless figures more than double since the beginning of the year. That is not unique to Southend but in line with what is happening across the country.
“That is not to mention the between 20 and 30 per cent of workers still on furlough whose future may also be uncertain when that scheme ends.
“We are facing a massive economic shock and it down to us as a council to do everything we can to bring back confidence to our economy, to get investment to help protect existing jobs and to create new ones. We also need to promote Southend as a place that people want to be.”
To do that, he explained regeneration projects, some of which have been under discussion for years, must move forward. They include the complete regeneration of the Queensway Estate, the redevelopment of the Seaway car park, off Lucy Road, and the construction of a major new football stadium at Fossetts Farm.
These projects are no longer just desirable but “crucial”.
He continued: “Some of these have faced controversy but we have agreements to move ahead with regenerating Queensway which could create 1,000 jobs over the course of the construction phase and there will be hundreds more if we can get the Seaway car park redeveloped into a leisure complex.
“Negotiations are also progressing with Southend United around the Fossetts Farm stadium development. If we can get that moving it will be another major boost to the town.”
The council leader highlighted that other projects are already in the works which will be starting point for recovery.
This includes the Airport Business Park which is getting its first tenant and the installation of high-speed internet by CityFibre, which he believes will encourage more businesses to base themselves in the town.
Recent council meetings have seen opposition councillors from the Conservative Group pushing back against several of these projects due to concerns over how they will impact the town’s roads and the available parking.
They have also questioned whether plans such as Seaway Leisure can still happen in the wake of the pandemic which has left cinemas and restaurants closing venues rather than opening new ones.
Conservative councillor Kevin Buck, who represents the Prittlewell Ward, said he agree with the “principle” of major projects underpinning economic recovery but he fears the council is moving forward without proper consideration of infrastructure.
He said: “I would be having conversations with developers to understand what their strategy is and taking into account how they see the climate going forward given it is likely to be 12 to 18 months before full recovery from the pandemic.
“We are not anti any of these developments, what we are anti is significantly increasing demand without the correct infrastructure to cope, such as sufficient and ample parking.
“One key strategy the council has is transport and access yet closing the Queensway underpass as part of the regeneration will reduce highway capacity at peak times throughout the town centre.”
But Mr Gilbert remains confident explaining that using the example of Seaway, it is down to developer Turnstone Estates to attract the businesses and so far, Turnstone remains happy to continue.
He said: “I think it’s a shame the opposition have been trying to delay projects they were in favour of when they were in administration but whilst that doesn’t help, the backwards and forwards of council processes hasn’t greatly impacted our timelines or our ability to take projects forward.
“This is an unprecedented situation given the scale of challenge but it is also an opportunity. Southend has a lot going for it and has perhaps never realised its full potential but with the projects we’ve got going, and if the Government match their rhetoric about building more with funding, we have a real opportunity to make this town more prosperous.”