The Conservative Group on Southend Borough Council have called for an investigation on the handling of the Queensway Underpass which is due to close as part of the Better Queensway development, potentially causing gridlock in the town centre. This comes after it was revealed that a number of anomalies had occurred during the decision making process including some misleading statements within official Council documents.
During the recent Full Council meeting Cllr Meg Davidson, Deputy Leader of the Southend Conservative Group asked the following question:
"The Conservatives have always supported and continue to support the regeneration of Queensway and the replacement of the tower blocks.
"It is therefore unfortunate that since Swan Housing’s appointment as our preferred partner in February 2019, there has been controversy regarding the Highways element of their proposed scheme.
"It has recently come to light that a key statement in the relevant Cabinet report was incorrect; namely, that Swan’s proposed highways scheme, submitted as part of their tender bid, “met the requirements set out in the Highways Design and Principles Document”. This gave the impression that Swan’s highway plan would retain 4 lanes through the Queensway underpass, as per the mandatory requirements stipulated in that document. This, as we now know, was not the case.
Given the significant controversy surrounding this scheme and the emerging evidence which substantiates the concerns being raised, will the Leader of the Council commit to an investigation to get to the heart of this matter and ensure that any concerns or potential improprieties in the procurement process are resolved prior to the scheme going for planning approval? In this way all members of this Council may quite rightly be able to support the Better Queensway project in full."
In response to this the Leader of the Council gave assurances that an investigation would indeed be forthcoming. However, he appeared to retract this through his summing up statement in which he appeared to pre-determine any investigation.
During the debate on the closure of the Queensway Underpass Cllr Davidson commented,
'We are very concerned to learn that the Cabinet Report recommending Swan Housing as the Council’s Better Queensway partner contained a statement that was not correct. This was not a minor detail: it was a key piece of information relating to one of the biggest schemes in the Council’s history and it was not true.
"Even if it’s “water under the bridge” in many ways, we still believe that we need to establish: how, despite all the checks and teams of advisers involved in the Better Queensway procurement, did such an error occur?
"Councillors have a right to expect that the information which is put before them in Council reports is accurate and written in clear, unambiguous language. Unfortunately, the information given in relation to the Better Queensway scheme has at times fallen short.
“One could call this a “Tale of Two Highways Schemes”. There was the original scheme approved by Council at the start of the procurement process which retained four lanes through the Queensway underpass. Then there was Swan’s highways plan submitted as part of their Better Queensway tender bid. Their plan was fundamentally different: it featured an at grade highway and closure of the underpass.
"The original scheme was not the airy fairy aspiration that councillors in the Labour led administration were claiming when it was discussed last June. On the contrary, it was incorporated into the procurement specification in the Highways Design & Principles Document. Retention of the four lanes through the underpass was one of the mandatory requirements stipulated in that document.
"When the Council considered the report recommending Swan as the partner for Better Queensway, councillors had no prior knowledge of Swan’s plan. So, when they read that Swan’s plan met the requirements as set out in the Highways Design and Principles Document, the natural assumption would have been that Swan’s plan was in line with the original plan.
"The report contained just one other piece of information about Swan’s plan. This was the reference to “raising the Queensway underpass to ground level throughout”. Some people have seized on this as conclusive proof that this informed us of Swan’s plan to close the underpass. But that’s only with the benefit of hindsight. In the context of what we knew at the time of the 2019 report, the most logical interpretation was that this was a reference to covering over the pedestrian underpass. Again, this links to another of the stipulated mandatory requirements.
"If that solitary phrase was intended to convey to us that Swan was planning to install an at grade highway, that is an extraordinary way to go about it. This was a Council report, it’s not the Da Vinci Code! Surely, the 2019 report should have explained how Swan’s plan differed from the original highways plan and why. Even better, the report could have included a drawing of Swan’s proposed highways layout.
"There is another aspect of the process which is of great concern: the fact that when we approved Swan as the Council’s Better Queensway partner in 2019, we subsequently learned that we were deemed to have automatically approved Swan’s proposed highways plan as well. How can this be so? We were given no sight of Swan’s Highway proposals and approving the highways element of the Better Queensway scheme was not mentioned in the report’s recommendations. Surely that cannot be right.
"The current Labour led administration repeatedly accuse the Conservatives of having approved the Better Queensway highways scheme in 2019. As no final plan had been presented to a Conservative Cabinet prior to June 2019, we could not have possibly done so. The final submitted plan for the highways element of Better Queensway was presented to a Cabinet of the current Labour led administration in 2020, which they approved."
The Conservative Group continues to support the redevelopment of housing on the Queensway regeneration area. However, will not support any plan to close the underpass which is recognised as a key piece of infrastructure in the town. A future Conservative led administration will not close the Queensway Underpass.