Southend businesses met on Thursday to discuss the future of the High Street with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Labour candidate Ashley Dalton.
The meeting at the Park Inn Palace Hotel included representatives from small independent businesses, large chain retailers, the Victoria and Royals shopping centres and the Federation of Small Businesses.
Ashley Dalton, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Rochford & Southend East, said: “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.”
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, eateries, independent shops 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.
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 police, but said the decline of local drug and alcohol dependency services had led directly to more anti-social behaviour.
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.
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 retail and entertainment could appeal more, then students graduating from Southend may choose to live and work in the town.
Jeremy Corbyn said: “It was a 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 encourage more businesses to develop, and how shopping must reflect the needs of people.