Southend-on-Sea has much featured in national headlines of recent time. The murder of Sir David Amess shocked the nation, and even now it is hard to take in that such a terrible event could have happened in Southend. We now have to look forward to the bittersweet accolade of city status.
Southend-on-Sea is a diverse borough. Part traditional British seaside town, part commuter-belt, incorporating the historic fishing village of Leigh and the garrison town of Shoeburyness, where weapon testing can still be heard from time to time.
Southend is the only Labour-led council in Essex, there are currently thirteen Labour councillors. In 2010 there were just four. It stands in contrast to other parts of Essex where former Labour strongholds now have Conservative majorities.
We have seen Labour make advances in parts of the South and East as a ripple effect spreading out from London. Undoubtedly that is a factor in our success. Sheer hard work is of course important – whilst never a large party, we have been able to boast some fanatical local campaigners, notably including our late colleague Julian Ware-Lane. We have almost always kept the focus of our campaigning local, stressing hard work and community roots of our candidates and not giving too much prominence to national messages regardless of changes of leaders or factions. Positivity is also important – when people have a wide choice (and very often our council wards have been contested by Tories, Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP and Independent candidates) being effectively anti-Tory is a start but it is not enough. People always need positive reasons to vote Labour, although these are often more likely to be found in the quality of our candidates than matters of borough-wide policy.
Taking over the running of the council in a three-way partnership with Liberal Democrat and Independent councillors may have seemed like foolish endeavour. A local party official even expressed sympathy rather than congratulation when informed them an agreement had been reached.
The British seaside town atmosphere is still, to many, a part of the town’s identity which should be preserved. The seafront and pier remain the best-loved aspects of the town even though many locals visit infrequently. However, it is clear that even though day trippers continue to flock to Southend in their thousands, such an economy cannot provide decent living standards for all our population. Southend has stark divisions of wealth between those who earn their money in the City, taking advantage of our two railway lines that get you into the central London in less than an hour, and those who struggle by with seasonal employment locally. Indeed, the rates of pay of jobs physically based in Southend are some of the lowest not just in the South East but the entire country.
Clearly a modern City needs a variety of economic stimuli, not just a single industry. Southend already boasts some high-tech manufacturing businesses such as Ipeco which makes airplane components and Olympus KeyMed who are world leaders in medical and optical technology. The council is bringing forward and Airport Business Park which will encourage more such businesses into the town. In the post COVID world, we will doubtlessly see that many tech jobs can be done from home. With that in mind, our decision taken back in 2014 to work with CityFibre to become one of the first Full Fibre ‘GigaBit Cities’ is extremely important. The biggest long-term issue is however skills. South Essex is relatively poorly provided with Higher Education opportunities qualification levels amongst the adult population remains relatively low. We are working with other authorities across the area to bring forward a new technical university in partnership with our key employers, to provide university level qualifications in a more inclusive, non-traditional way.
Yet of course, residents of Southend don’t want to be a generic town with just an industrial estate and some commuter suburbs. Our tourist economy will remain important both to our livelihood and our identity. Preserving our heritage does not mean fossilising our economy. Our administration has pursued, despite huge opposition from the Conservatives and small parts of the business community, a new leisure park, anchored by an 11 screen IMAX cinema. Unlike in similar developments though, we can site this development a stone’s throw away from our seafront and High Street, to complement rather than compete with our existing and more traditional economy.
Southend has long been known for its cultural offering, and indeed was designated as the cultural hub of the Thames Estuary way back under the last Labour government. By continuing to build on our leisure and cultural assets we can deepen and widen our visitor economy so that the Southend of the 21st century is just as relevant, popular and exciting as the town was in its early days. We were successful in our levelling up bid for funds to enhance Leigh Port and the Cliffs Pavilion. Leigh port is part of our history but is also a working fishing port and an attraction to visitors. The Cliffs Pavilion is a popular regional theatre and venue. Southend has always been known for a vibrant live music scene, and we host the UKs only Jazz Centre, as well as notable art galleries and museums.
Being a seaside town brings with it many challenges. Huge influxes of visitors on hot summer days are not without problems in terms of antisocial behaviour and community safety. We have to fight very hard to get the Police resources we need. Until our administration, the council did not have a uniformed community safety team. Our good connectivity to London means that ‘County Lines’ and gangs have been a serious issue. Like many seaside towns we have issues with large former hotels, guest houses and late Victorian properties being badly converted into flats and HMOs. Bringing in a Selective Licensing scheme to allow us to properly tackle rogue landlords was a key Labour commitment that we are delivering despite the Conservatives opposing the measure tooth and nail.
Whilst it is one thing to have an exciting vision, we are faced with serious day to day needs. Like all unitary and upper tier authorities, adult social care is stretched to the point of breaking point and our budget this year focusses on addressing that pressure as best we can. We have also instituted a massive programme of road and pavement resurfacing to address decades of under investment.
The granting of City Status is a great honour for Southend, albeit one achieved in tragic circumstances. We are working cross-party and cross community to make sure it is something that the whole of Southend can share in. We want, as Sir David wished, to boost the profile of Southend, encourage investment and foster civic pride. We have an exciting range of events including ‘Luminocity’ light sculptures, music festival, multi-faith events and much more. This will be a chance to show our borough at its best.
We’ve been fortunate over the years that some good friends in the Labour movement from London and beyond have come to help our campaigns from time to time, and such support always gives a fillip to our local members. People will vouch for the warm welcome, and fish and chips on the front, an ice cream or a stick of rock are always options for visitors. As I write we have many true-blue visitors hear for the parliamentary by-election. When that is over it would be great to see Labour friends join us support the red team as we continue to take Southend forward.
Cllr Ian Gilbert, Labour Leader of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council