Well, if anything says a city has started it’s long journey to stardom, it is a Wagamamas.
This is a destination location. Put it anywhere and the people will come.
Normally cinemas make restaurants busier. This time it is Wagas that will boost the Odeon.
It will make Southend High Street a destination location and shops will benefit as it brings in the crowds.
If other destination locations filled Southend High Street we would be back.
But whilst attracting Bluewater’s repertoire remains implausible, we must accept that Southend High Street is no longer a destination location in its own right.
Let’s be honest - how many of us actually visit specifically for the high street?
When it was first pedestrianised in the 1960s it was a great idea and worked superbly well, as it was the leisure destination.
I remember as a child in the 80s it being packed at Christmas with an atmosphere that was electric.
I remember as a teenager going into Southend was a big deal.
This is no longer a thing.
Everyone talks about Leigh Broadway as an example of how a high street can work, and whilst that is true, it is the miles of London Road that is where I turn to for further inspiration.
Odd as it may sound because we don’t think of London Road as a shopping destination as such, but drive along from Southend High Street to Hadleigh and there are hundreds of shops selling all sorts of different products and services.
From everything you read, if you didn’t know better you would have said retail is dying, but it is quite the opposite.
What is more interesting is that most of the shops are independent.
But how is this so?
As much as business costs and a good business idea are fundamental, exposure to that business is the next key step.
And as basic as it might sound the power of London Road’s road ought not to be underestimated.
It gives thousands upon thousands of drivers the unknowing opportunity to see these places that they would otherwise never have even thought to look for.
The shops don’t need to be destination locations because people naturally drive through them. It exposes the shops all day long; shops that otherwise wouldn’t have had a look in.
Footfall is important, but it can be forgotten that ‘carfall’ is perhaps even more so.
If I were a shop owner I would indeed wish for as many people as possible to see my shop. I could budget huge amounts of money for advertising or I could position my shop on a very busy road that provides that advertising for free.
It’s no coincidence that Leigh Broadway, Thorpe Bay Broadway and Southchurch Village are all doing well despite there being very few nationally brands.
On my recent holiday touring the south coast of England I did not have a clue what each village, town or city would bring. I wanted to drive around to see what was there before parking up and exploring.
Portsmouth is a good example. It has much to do, and while I could see everything driving past, the high street remained elusive as there was no road. Had I not been on a mission to research other high streets I would not have gone out of my way and parked up.
As it happens Portsmouth High Street, while an improvement on Southend, is not particularly enthralling and I wouldn’t say to anyone they must go there if they were ever in Portsmouth.
Brighton on the other hand was buzzing. It has a brilliant mix of independent shops and internationally recognised brands. But what was most important was that we could drive through the high street to see what was there.
High streets are across the country are no longer the centrepiece they once were, and Southend’s is hanging on primarily because of seafront.
The road will also make it safer during the day, but also at night. No longer would we be taking our lives in our own hands! In fact there would be a resurgence of a nighttime economy.
And how many times have we seen our pavement dismantled and torn up to perform underground works? How much money do we waste? And how aesthetically displeasing does our high street look because of it?
Of course make the pathways safe and wide enough and put plenty of zebra crossings in. Put a cycle lane to join up with the seafront. Make the road attractive by using different coloured materials of which there are many options available. And leave the option to be able to open and close the road as and when there is the need to do so.
And for those that argue there won’t be enough room for walkers, Oxford Street, Regent Street and the Strand are possibly the busiest places in the UK, and they do just fine.
There is the matter of the cost to open the road as well as changing the highways to accommodate such a change. It is not a minor undertaking.
There will be a thousand nuances in the development of this plan. There may in the end be immoveable reasons for it not to happen. But we must explore it seriously because the end goal will drive the local economy forward creating more jobs, or at least sustaining the number we have already, and give us Southend residents a central point in which to be proud of.
Certainly there will be a few people that love the high street the way it is. And we need to listen to them. If there is no solution to their problems then it should not proceed.
I am, however, sometimes the optimist, and feel that if we pool our creative minds together we can start the journey on the road to the road.
And one day when the shops are thriving again and it becomes a destination location then, perhaps, bring back the pavement!