When interviewed on the radio a week ago, I was asked two what I thought were challenging questions that I hadn’t expected and, with only a second or two to think, I felt obliged to come up with some intelligent answers. Fair play of course to the interviewer and this is a factor to be reckoned with for any would be interviewees, especially if having to face someone who, unlike my benign question master, turns out to be anything but sympathetic.
The first question was what words of wisdom I could give the people of Scotland in the aftermath of the momentous independence referendum result? I felt I acquitted myself, albeit with a bit of stutter, okish, although when I reflected further I realized I could have done better. All that is now is past of course and events, as they say, have moved on. And that brings me to the second question, which I took (rightly or wrongly) to be one asking me my opinion on what is the big need for Southend (the town where I live). In answering, I qualified my response by saying we all have differing perspectives and that will influence how we respond. I reflected that on the evening before I was out with Street Spirit and we engaged with thirtyish people, most of which were street homeless. I reflected while there were agencies that were doing a good job housing the homeless and other agencies like our own that tried to support them in various ways, the fact remained that there were people who when they left us would be sleeping on the streets through no fault of their own and because the provision was just not available. In the back of my mind were some harrowing stories I had been told and how to bring about a satisfactory resolution.
Those who regularly read my blog will know, helping the homeless is one of my pet projects, so I would say that wouldn’t I? Later, when I reflected further on the question, I came up with alternatives just as valid. The first related to the dilemma of local government: trying to do things that are desirable (some say essential) but where they have no statutory obligation to act. This is especially pertinent given that there is less money coming in to the Council coffers as a result of recent austerity cuts, and inevitably the services that suffer are those which the Council are not legally obligated to provide. The previous administration (pre-May) had already said they would cut services like libraries and care homes, to save costs, which the new regime said they would consider overturning. On top of this were controversial plans like the re-building flood defences that they also said they would review. I don’t have a magic solution, for we need libraries, care homes and flood defences, but these need to be paid for with money that it looks as if we may not have, and is part of a paradigm we don’t understand.
The next thought was around what a few years back was the flavor of the month – the Big Society: what can we do as a community to address the many social issues that affect us? My kindly interviewer made the point that I was working for the Big Society long before the term was coined, which is sort of true. I believe there is mileage still in exploring areas of need that the community could address, with some support coming from the Council, and it shouldn’t cost much. One obvious example is the Church Winter Night Shelters (CWNS), whereby churches make available their premises and with the help of volunteers provide refuge (hospitality, food and accommodation) for a 13 hour period, during the winter months. Looking ahead to the coming winter, five of the seven day slots are covered and with the help of a sympathetic minister there may be a sixth, for right now I am trying to sort through the logistics and recruit my team. There are other areas of need and some are not so obvious. During the week, I attended a presentation by the Council and a Christian fostering support agency to do with fostering children, for such is the need in the town. Along with other needs people may not be aware of, these could be met by the public.
And finally, I come to biggie, upon which much else hinges, and it is around the economy and how to grow it. After all, bringing in more money into the town is one way to tackle social issues, e.g. by providing employment and by it paying for services. While there are all sorts of angles as to how to stimulate the local economy, I will focus on one, and that begins with an imaginary spine separating the east and west sides of the town. That spine runs from the end of the pier, up the High Street to Victoria Circus and then onwards into Victoria Avenue, which is the main gateway into the town. It should be said that in recent years a lot of money has been spent on the regeneration of the town centre and sea front and there are many other positives that merit consideration. But there remains a glaring room for improvement and action. There is a lack of things to do and see at the end of the pier. The High Street lacks quality shops and there are too many shops that are not quality, such us betting and money lenders. Victoria Avenue has too many longstanding empty buildings that could and should be put to better use. With my joined up thinking hat on, I feel these factors are or should be intrinsically linked to what are the strengths and positive features of the town, e.g. the airport, university and cultural heritage.
So returning to the title: “The big need for Southend”, there isn’t just one but several and the “royal we” do have our work cut out trying to address these in a constructive manner. In the months and years to come, I hope that is what will happen and that I and others can play our part in making it so.