Leadership blog - Cllr Ian Gilbert, leader of the council

Published Tuesday, 19th May 2020

Cllr Ian Gilbert, leader of the council, he is standing in front of a wall. He is smiling and is wearing a black jacket, striped shirt and red striped tie.

The last week has been an incredibly busy time for the council.

The announcements made by the Prime Minister on Sunday 10 May and subsequent details on Monday afternoon have meant some quick decisions and changes to our operations have been required. At times we have been about to give updates that have been superseded by further guidance and made them out of date almost immediately.

Officers have spoken to colleagues in Essex Police and other partners about the implications of the decision by the Government to allow people to drive as far as they want to exercise, to be outdoors and to sunbathe, and to travel to destinations as long as they don’t stay overnight.

This change has deeply concerned me. Southend-on-Sea has always been a location for day trippers, and this new guidance opens the doors for visitors. It is clear that the police cannot and will not be able to enforce or stop people driving into our Borough to exercise, visit a takeaway or sit on the beach if they want to. We have written to local MPs and government departments to express this serious concern and ask what consideration has been given to seaside towns like ours.

With all this in mind, we have carefully considered what we could do in response to facilitate a safer environment for local people but also making it clear that we would prefer it if visitors stay away for a little while yet. How can we encourage personal responsibility but also provide an environment where keeping 2 metres apart from people is possible?

This is a tricky issue, and we know that whatever we do in response, it is just not possible to please everyone.

We took the difficult decision to reopen our five seafront car parks from Saturday, as to do otherwise could lead to massive extra pressure on residential streets, with all the problems that that causes for local residents. We experienced this the weekend before the Government made its announcement and ‘lockdown’ was still in full force.

We implemented a contraflow system along Western Esplanade from Chalkwell all the way to the Pier to reduce the space for cars, and increase it for pedestrians and cyclists. Parking bays along this whole area remain suspended. This restrict traffics and provides more space for people to maintain physical distance.

We believe this is a balanced approach that will provide a safer environment for people to socially distance, and mean we are not faced with chaos as people turn up and cannot park, with the clogging up of residential side streets the inevitable result.  As much as we will continue to discourage visitors, the fact is that some will continue to come and we saw that particularly on Sunday, not only in Southend-on-Sea but across the nations beaches, parks and beauty spots. We will do all we can to deter visitors and ask them to leave the area alone for locals at this time, ask people to consider their actions and help us provide as safe an environment as possible.

Many takeaway businesses are legally open and this will increase. We are working to advise and support them to implement social distancing measures for the protection of their staff and local people. This has included putting up barriers under the Pier for example to block off parking bays to give more room for people to queue. We are reviewing all measures that were in place this weekend, ahead of the bank holiday weekend.

We will gradually reopen our public toilets that are closed, once they have been cleaned and made safe and we are confident we can implement more rigorous cleaning schedules.

Should we close the seafront to traffic? Should we keep our seafront car parks closed? These were all options considered last week but it was felt given the national advice we just could not justify this for the reasons outlined above.  However, we will be reviewing all the evidence from this weekend and seeing if it is appropriate to make any changes for the bank holiday.

This weekend we used signage, staff, and stay safe, stay apart volunteers to remind people of the safety and social distancing rules that are still in force, and the Police do have powers to issue fines for rule-breaking, which I hope they will make use of appropriately. We all need to remember that this is not a return to normal, and the current health emergency is certainly not over.

Of course parking and our approach to the seafront are not the only areas that we have to concentrate on and make decisions on. Whilst calls to our Southend Coronavirus Action Line have reduced, we have so far delivered food shopping and medication to over 500 people, and also undertaken several be-friending calls and dog walks too.

As of Sunday night, we have also paid out nearly £34m in business grants to over 2,700 businesses and have administered a number of hardship grants to local residents. We continue to support the care home sector, working with countywide colleagues to deliver PPE and recently opened a care unit in partnership with Southend Care to support older people awaiting a COVID 19 negative test result. Grounds maintenance staff will restart grass cutting verges across the Borough, we are having to re-open tennis and basketball courts and the golf course. All of these need to be done with safety and wellbeing at the top of the list.

We have also held a number of virtual meetings, with the council’s first ever virtual Development Control Committee being held on Wednesday and continue to work with local schools and headteachers to support them to be open at this time for key workers and for a potential re-opening on 1st June. And just importantly, we continue to plan for recovery as an organisation and as a place too. Stay safe and well.