Make no mistake about it: this scheme, if it goes ahead, will be built on park land, no matter how vociferously Councillors deny this. They have simply not done their homework adequately and they have avoided a precise definition of what constitutes Priory Park.
The Council's Preferred Option
Map Copyright © 2001 Denis Walker
There is only one adequate definition of Priory Park and that is the area defined by the Title Deeds. There are four of these, dated 21st February 1918, 21st December 1923, 3rd April 1925 and 10th May 1929. The first three of these were signed by R.A. Jones in which he put the bulk of Priory Park into the public domain "in perpetuity". The fourth, after Jones's death in May 1925, relates specifically to the area of land shown on the Council's plans, and is where the Council plans to build a new railway bridge (shaded green on the above plan). This area is specified in the 1929 deed to be "for the purposes of open spaces and shrubberies only and will on the completion of this Conveyance plant and keep planted the same with suitable trees and shrubs and will for ever hereafter maintain the same as open spaces and shrubberies only". This particular piece of land includes 62 trees, almost half of them large oaks, which would almost all be felled under the Council's scheme: not street trees, as the Council claim, but Park trees. An example of our elected representatives wilfully misleading the public.
All of these areas of land are part of Priory Park in that they are administered by a Charitable Trust under the auspices of the Charities Commission, who hold copies of all these deeds. The objective of the Charitable Trust is for the land "TO BE DEDICATED, HELD, USED AND ENJOYED AS AND FOR THE PURPOSES OF A PUBLIC PARK FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE INHABITANTS OF THE BOROUGH OF SOUTHEND-ON-SEA AND THE RECREATION OF THE PUBLIC AREA" (a direct quote from the Charities Commission database). Councillors were aware of this (because the PPPS had told them) before the Civic News went to press and this is another example of the Council deliberately misleading the public.
Then there is the question of the footpath to the south ot Priory Crescent. At the moment it is outside the park fence, but the plan is to place it inside the park, thereby concreting over what is currently a green area. What kind of fantasy world do our councillors live in if they can argue that this scheme will not take park land? They may delude each other with their talk, but there will not be many residents of this borough who will be convinced by this nonsense.
The article in "Civic News" also claims that Priory Crescent has "long been acknowledged to be a significant bottleneck". Not by people who use the road, it hasn't. It is true that Priory Crescent, at peak hours, becomes congested, but no more than any of the nearby dual carriageway roads. I have challenged Councillors to meet me at peak traffic hours so that I can show them that Priory Crescent is congested because of the roundabouts at either end, not because of something that happens in the middle, but not one has accepted my invitation. Tacitly, I am sure that they know, just as every other motorist knows, that Priory Crescent is not the cause of the trouble: it is the sheer volume of traffic all trying to use Cuckoo Corner and, to a lesser extent, the Sutton Road / Eastern Avenue roundabout.
On the second page of the "Civic News", there is a piece entitled "Some of your questions answered". The key question "Would the improvements lead to improved journey times?" has not been answered at all adequately "There would be some improvement to journey times and most importantly, journey reliability" What sort of answer is this? What is "journey reliability"? It is critical to this entire scheme that motorists know precisely how much journey time will be saved. The true answer, of course, is "None" because there is no plan to reduce the volume of traffic in the Borough. And if the computer controlled traffic signals will really have a beneficial effect, then why not introduce them anyway and leave the park alone? If they produce the desired effect, fine; if not, think again, but at least something will have been tried without irreversible damage to the Park. This is the "do nothing" option which the Council so deride but which is, in reality, the best option.
In answer to the question "How many vehicles use Priory Crescent?", the Council have claimed that it is 21400 in a 12-hour period, compared to 19800 using Victoria Avenue. It is not clear that both figures relate to the same 12-hours period. Would Councillors or Council officials like to make it plain what were the two 12-hour periods in question? For example, if the Priory Crescent figure was for a 12-hours period beginning at 7 a.m., thereby including both morning and evening rush hours, whereas the Victoria Avenue figure was for a period beginning at 10 a.m., thereby including only one peak period, that would indeed explain the discrepancy but it would also demonstrate once again how easy it is to slip in a piece of misleading information just to back up the Council's argument. Of course, there are those of us who remember Councillor Roger Weaver's claim, in June, that Priory Crescent carried 63,000 vehicles a day ("more than the M11," said Mr. Weaver) which suddenly changed when Friends of the Earth did an accurate traffic survey and found it to be less than half that number. This "creativity" amongst the authors of this scheme has been entirely typical and predictable and it is remarkable how quick they are to distance themselves from each piece of disinformation once it has been proved to have been false. Certainly, motorists who have sat for many minutes in sluggardly queues at peak time in Victoria Avenue will find the Council figures impossible to believe, based upon their own experience. On the other hand, if it is true that Victoria Avenue (a dual carriageway) becomes as congested as it does on less traffic than Priory Crescent, then that is further proof that making a road into a dual carriageway does not necessarily do anything to ease the congestion.
There is nothing in the "Civic News" about the long-suffering residents of Priory Crescent. If this scheme comes about, at peak times they will be stuck with four lanes of stationary traffic outside their houses instead of two, thereby doubling the quantity of noxious fumes which they will be forced to inhale, and with a reduced tree cover (it is known that large trees have a small but beneficial effect on traffic pollution by absorbing some of it). Meanwhile, Councillors and officials have refused repeated requests to install some pollution testing equipment into Priory Crescent "for technical reasons". Whatever these "technical reasons" are, this information has never been divulged to the public.
A further question was not raised in "Civic News", let alone answered. Priory Park is widely accepted as a haven for wildlife, included amongst the protected species using it as habitat being water voles, two species of woodpecker, kingfishers and two species of bat. All of this is susceptible to disturbance, which would be inevitable during heavy-duty construction work. But more particularly, where would the contractors' machinery be stored when the road work is going on? There is nowhere to store it but in the Park, which would do enormous damage to the wildlife, grassland and trees there.
Another question which remains unanswered is this: the distance between the existing Park fence and the gardens north of Priory Crescent is only 18 metres. This is scarcely adequate for a dual carriageway, central reservation and a pavement on the north side as well as a 1-metre gap between the existing fence and the road. Given that it is frequently the case that, during construction work, plans need to be revised as a result of practical considerations which can only come to light after the work has started, how much are Councillors' guarantees worth that the road will not encroach onto park land?
And what about our much-vaunted "Green Flag" status? Wrecking a piece of ancient park land in favour of an unjustifiable road widening scheme doesn't enhance the Council's environmental credentials too well.
Given that all of this establishes that our Council is guilty of misleading the public, one has to ask why it is that they want to build a road which will ruin the north side of a rare, beautiful park, which does absolutely nothing to ease congestion and which can only add to the pollution problems of Priory Crescent. Of course, in the absence of firm information, one can only guess at answers, but some clues have been given by unwary councillors who have let slip revealing replies to questions asked.
Probably the most important issue is that they want to develop a huge amount of land to the east of the town. They want to build houses on Thorpe Bay Golf Course and a lot more on ex-MoD land in Shoebury. All of this development will entail a considerable increase of traffic using the roads which cross from the east of the town to the west (Priory Crescent, East Street and Queensway). Rochford District Council and Essex County Council have already vetoed the proposals to build another road into the east side of the town from the North.
In the first instance, of course, the dualling of Priory Crescent would do nothing to solve the problems of traffic congestion, as has already been established. However, the only reason that the Council has ruled out underpasses or flyovers at Cuckoo Corner and Sutton Road is because they have not budgeted for them this year. There is nothing to say that they will not bid for Government money in the next year or two for such a scheme, and for a widening scheme to make the A127 three lanes both ways, for that is what it will take to ease the current levels of congestion.
Secondly, the Council have the money, provided by Central Government, to widen Priory Crescent. It is in the nature of annual budgets that they have to be spent. If the Council goes back to the Department of Transport not having used the current budget, the Men from the Ministry will not look at all favourably on their bids for future work. Roger Weaver himself, Southend's Transport Supremo, has been quoted as saying as much by our local press.
But all of these road schemes are to be put in place to meet an objective: to attract more business to Southend. Geographically, Southend has an insurmountable problem in this respect because it is coastal. An inland town (e.g. Basildon) will always have a huge advantage over Southend in business terms because there will be plenty of customers within a 15 mile radius. Basildon is well-served with adequate roads and has customers all round it. It is a Business Centre. Southend can never be a centre because the nearest people to the east of us live in Holland. The nearest people to the south of us live in Kent. Hardly anyone lives to the north of us until you get to Maldon, and then you have to travel inland to Battlesbridge before you can make that journey. We have only one decent road serving the town so our customer base is the people who live in the town and those to the west, who are also equally well served by Basildon.
In the view of many people, Southend has reached its limit in development terms unless we are prepared to pay an enormous price environmentally. Those of us fighting against this road scheme are not prepared to see our quality of life sacrificed for some spurious notion that Southend can compete economically with better-serviced inland towns. Because we accept that Southend can't compete, we believe that any development should be for the benefit of existing residents or to enhance the natural features and advantages which Southend has. Priory Park, for one, must compare favourably with any urban park in neighbouring towns; the sea front is our most obvious asset; and what about trying to improve the public transport system so that buses actually take people to places they want to go to when they want to go there? I wonder how many of our councillors travel by bus as part of their everyday routine?
This scheme is now open for public consultation. Residents have until 4th January to table their objections. Write to your Councillors, copy the letter to the Technical Services Department, join the Priory Park Preservation Society, attend the demonstration from the Park Gates at 10.30 a.m. on Saturday 8th December. This is about saving the Park, but it is also about the fact that you simply cannot trust this Council to act in the best interests of the residents of Southend-on-Sea.
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