Rayleigh – A Town With A Heart

Sid Cumberland

Sid Cumberland

I’ve lived in Rayleigh for about twelve years. Rayleigh appealed to us as a good place to bring up a young family because it seemed to be more of a community than many other towns around – it’s a town with a heart.

For the last five years I have been a Liberal Democrat councillor, and probably the biggest task we have faced in that time is the issue of how best to bring life back to the town centre.

Let’s remember what we started with:

We had a one-way traffic system designed for motorists – and not just local motorists, but motorists from further afield who only wanted the quickest possible journey through our town centre. Three lanes of traffic hurtling up the High Street, two lanes down Webster’s Way – a delight for boy racers, a nightmare for pedestrians and shoppers.

The High Street itself, the focal point of our local community, was falling into disrepair and disuse; charity shops proliferated, along with estate agents and other non-retail businesses, while out-of-town supermarkets sucked the life out of Rayleigh and other local towns and villages. I have no objection to these enterprises – as long as they don’t strangle the town centre. But this is exactly what they were doing.

We lost many useful and interesting shops, and with them visitors to our town – who goes anywhere because of the second-hand shops?

I am also quite sure that no one visits Rayleigh to look at our modern architecture. A good case could be made for the Tesco supermarket being the ugliest building in Rayleigh, with Barclays Bank and the Police station also in contention. And it was allowed to be built right in the middle of the conservation area!

Rayleigh has been growing as well. Thousands of new houses have been built in the last few years, particularly to the west of the town. But no provision has been made for all those new residents – no new leisure opportunities, no health and education facilities, and nothing in the way of local shops and other services.

The Mill Hall has begun to show its age – and it doesn’t seem to be up to the job it was designed for: providing community leisure services. The Sports & Social Club closed last year, with the loss of further facilities. The building itself was left in a fairly dilapidated state. On the same site, the Regal Cinema was demolished and retirement flats built instead; the promised replacement cinema has never materialised.

In case there is any doubt about who was responsible, let me remind you that in the 70s and 80s the council was run by the Tories; they promised to get rid of the one-way system – but didn’t; they gave planning permission for the new houses – without ensuring that adequate facilities were provided for local people; and they built our leisure centre at Clements Hall. Meanwhile, successive Conservative governments allowed the building of out-of-town superstores, which steadily eroded the prosperity of our town centre shops.

What, then, do you do, faced with a speedway traffic system, dying shops, a growing population, and a shortage of community facilities? One option, of course, is to do nothing – and there are local people who would urge us to do just that. But we Liberal Democrats believe that local communities deserve better than that, and we are trying to do what we can with the resources available.

The District Council is working closely with Rayleigh Town Council and Essex County Council to improve the town centre. Our aim is to make Rayleigh a more attractive and pedestrian-friendly environment for visitors and local residents. We plan to take advantage of the distinctive features of the town – particularly the windmill and other listed buildings – while providing new facilities to attract visitors and shoppers.

In the conservation area we plan:

  • the replacement of unsightly tarmac pavements with paviors, to introduce a variety of attractive effects;
  • new street lighting, of a design more suited to the conservation area;
  • additional tree planting, with metal guards and cast-iron surrounds;
  • new seating and litter bins;
  • replacement bus shelters, again of a ‘heritage’ design.

For the Mill Hall site, we are working out how best to use the existing buildings to provide the best mix of community facilities, while preserving the integrity of the historic Mount. Public consultation will be vitally important: nothing will be decided without the chance for you to have your say. Would you like to see a cinema? a swimming pool? a playgroup? meeting rooms? (But do bear in mind that we will be constrained by (a) finance and (b) available space.) There will be exhibitions before Christmas showing some of the possibilities – there will probably be one at the Mill Hall. Please come along and let us know what you think!