Southend businesses met to discuss the future of the High Street with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Labour parliamentary candidate Ashley Dalton.
The meeting at the Park Inn Palace Hotel on Thursday 1st November 2018, included representatives from small independent businesses, large chain retailers, the Victoria and Royals shopping centres and the Federation of Small Businesses.
Labour councillors Anne Jones, Ian Gilbert, Cheryl Nevin and Julian Ware-Lane attended the meeting to hear the views of business owners and offer potential solutions that can be executed at local level.
Ashley Dalton, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Rochford & Southend East, said: “Local businesses came to this meeting full of ideas to make Southend High Street a premium destination.
“Retail is a huge part of Southend’s economy and the High Street is its centre. Sadly, we have seen an increase in crime and anti-social behaviour and more empty units on the High Street.
“There is a variety of actions that national government can take to help businesses thrive and expand, creating jobs for local people. I am thrilled that businesses gave us their time today and look forward to lobbying for changes that will benefit them.
“That Jeremy Corbyn visited Southend today speaks volumes about our town’s importance as an economic centre of the county and the region. Southend has a proud history as a hub for tourism, dining, retail and entertainment. Labour is determined to do everything it can to help towns like ours realise future opportunities.”
Jeremy Corbyn said: “It was a really good discussion about the issues facing the High Street: the lack of policing, the need for more investment in public spaces, and the need to improve public transport.
“It was also about how the economy of Southend develops, how the university can become a creative place that can encourage more businesses to develop, and how shopping needs to reflect the needs of people.
“This is the way Labour works: to bring people together in order to improve communities all across the country.”
Business representatives said the High Street should be a community hub and “social experience” that attracted people to stay for a day or a weekend, rather than simply a shopping centre.
They said town centres needed a mixture of elements to remain viable, including national chains, independent shops, eateries and entertainment venues, but also residential areas to bring people to the centre of the activity. Planning restrictions around converting commercial buildings into homes can make it difficult to put residents close to the town centre, they said.
Crime and anti-social behaviour were also high on businesses’ agenda. The manager of a major retailer reported people urinating in the store and assaulting members of staff.
Representatives praised the work of the police, but added more officers were needed. They also said the decline of local drug and alcohol dependency services had led directly to more anti-social behaviour in the centre of town.
Uncertainty over the potential for a retail park at Fosset’s Farm was causing High Street businesses a headache. Representatives said a retail park may draw business away from the town centre. They called for clarity on the future of the development to allow them to make plans.
With pressure on parking in the town centre, business representatives said better public transport, running a wider variety of routes for longer hours, would help employees get to work and entice shoppers into town, particularly as consumers become more environmentally conscious.
There were a number of issues holding back small businesses, attendees said. Small businesses said the national business rates system was stacked against them.
In Southend in particular, the large unit formerly occupied by BHS is a problem. The site, which has been empty for two years since the department store went into administration, could be split by its owners into bite-sized units and rented out to small independent businesses. Government could do more to incentivise “creative uses” for large empty units, they said.
Businesses noted that the presence of the university in the town could be the key to its regeneration. If the retail and entertainment offer could be reorientated to appeal more to young people, more students graduating from Southend may choose to live and work in the town.
For more information or to arrange an interview with Ashley Dalton, Ian Gilbert, Anne Jones or Julian Ware-Lane, please contact Rachel on firstname.lastname@example.org or 07599084650.