Underpass uproar over Southend’s Queensway estate regeneration – who signed it off?

Better Queensway is the biggest regeneration project in Southend in a generation and it promises to change the face of the town with more than 1,600 new homes.

Construction work on the £500m plan is expected to begin sometime in the next 12 months.

But arguments are raging over which political party approved a major change to the road layout which means raising the four-lane Queensway underpass.

Conservative councillors say the change will cause gridlock in the centre of the town and insist when they were in charge of the council they were assured by development partner Swan Housing and council officers the road would not be changed.

But councillors who are part of the joint Labour, Liberal Democrat and Independent coalition in charge of the council say it was nothing to do with them because the Conservatives signed off the plans last year, when they had control of the council.

It has laid bare an apparent failing on all sides to properly read and understand what they were agreeing to until it was too late.

Speaking at a Place Scrutiny Committee meeting on Monday, Southend Council leader, Councillor Ian Gilbert (Lab) said it was “inconceivable” the Tories were not aware they had signed off on the underpass but admitted, despite being in opposition at the time, he had also not noticed it as his focus was on housing.

Cllr Kevin Buck (Con) told the committee his party had been told there were no changes to the highways and they “didn’t understand” what was within the final documents they signed off.

Committee member Cllr Matt Dent (Lab), said: “There are two ways to read this. First, they knew about it and are now claiming they didn’t to avoid responsibility.

“The other is they are telling truth and they didn’t know and didn’t read the documents thoroughly.

“Both lead to the same deeply unflattering conclusion about the Conservative Group on Southend Council.

“The idea they signed off half a billion-pound scheme without reading the paper first or are willing to claim they did, is negligent in the extreme and anyone claiming that is not fit for public office.

“We are talking about half a billion of taxpayers money.”

Cllr Dent admitted that when the papers were signed off by the Tories in February 2019 the Labour Party which was in opposition had a responsibility to scrutinise but he said the road changes were not raised because “the focus of everybody was on the amount of social housing”.

He added: “From my point of view, I didn’t see raising the underpass as being the deal breaker and I still don’t.”

The filling in of the underpass was revealed at the end of last year when Southend Council published its initial designs. They showed the dual carriageway underpass, which allows traffic to flow to the seafront without using the Porters roundabout, was set to be filled in and used for a tank which will help prevent the seafront flooding during heavy downpours.

Instead of using the underpass, all traffic to and from Victoria Gateway will have to negotiate two light controlled pedestrian crossings and merge on to the Porters Grange roundabout.

Cllr Buck said: “There is absolutely no way the Southend Conservative cabinet approved the closure of the underpass. It simply did not happen.”

He explained that the document signed off by the Tories was an agreement for the council to enter into a partnership with Swan Housing for the development of the scheme, not the final plans.

That agreement, while stating the underpass would be “raised to grade” also explicitly stated that the designs developed by Swan met the requirements of a previous highways design document which said the four-lane underpass would remain.

He claims the final design of the project, including the underpass lies with current administration, but they are trying to blame the Southend Conservatives for it.

He continued: “Labour have said the Tories are playing politics, absolutely not.

“Everyone supports the housing stock, what we did not support and what this administration is asking us to support is closing the underpass. We never supported that.”

He further criticised rival parties for placing the blame entirely on the Tories as they were in opposition and “their whole job was to scrutinise what the cabinet was doing”.

Mr Dent said it is too late to change the plan because doing so “reduces housing and makes the scheme no longer financially viable”.

He added: “It has been looked at and frankly this is the best we can do for the town.”

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Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter