On Customs leaving Southend

My last schoolboy summer holiday saw a ladybird infestation, and my tackling Stranger In A Strange Land with amateur cricket as a backdrop at the Chalkwell Park I often visited. As summer gave way to autumn, my childhood ended as my career began.

I began my full-time working life in November 1976 at HM Customs and Excise. In one of those little ironies I started at Metropolitan House in Victoria Avenue (now called Victoria House), just a few floors above where I had been signing on during that summer.

In those days HM Customs and Excise employed something like 5000 people in Southend-on-Sea. Not only did they have a significant presence in Metropolitan House, but they could also claim offices in the following locations:

Alexander House, Portcullis House, Baryta House, Coleman House (subsequently C.E. Heath House), Carby House, the Prudential building, Maitland House, and an significant IT operations in Shoeburyness.

I may have missed an office or two out; this is just my memory after all. Added to this, Cupids Country Club was a Civil Service Sports ground.

It was the Thatcher government that saw the beginning of the decline. The job that Maggie’s minions started looks to be completed within the next five years, if reports are to be believed.

Of course times change, and progress marches on. But my generation had a substantial employer in the borough, offering a career and good money. In those days we also had Access/Mastercard, a large Inland Revenue presence, significant insurance companies (including C.E. Heath, or CUACO), and manufacturers like Amstrad, Hi-Tech, Lesney – all in addition to HM Customs and Excise.

Victoria Avenue was a buzzing, thriving office environment in those long ago days. Whether it will ever be thus again is debatable, even unlikely. Time marches on, but progress is not always welcome. When HM Revenue and Customs, as HMC&E is now known, finally bids adieu to Southend I think we will have lost something of value.

I want the current central library locally listed

One of my little campaigns at the moment is centred round the current central library building in Victoria Avenue. There is a new library being built in Southend’s town centre, a joint venture with the university, and this will replace the current central library. Naturally, once open will lead to questions about the ‘old’ building (since it was built in my lifetime it does not seem that old). I am hoping to avoid seeing this building demolished, and to this end I am looking at have it locally listed.

The central library, in my opinion, is a wonderful example of 1970s architecture. Whilst I am sure there are better examples, none are threatened. Whilst I am not suggesting that the wrecking ball is on standby I do not want to wait until it is too late to do anything. The library, whilst in need of some TLC, is still a perfectly serviceable building that should be preserved for the community. I fancy some sort of cultural centre being housed here after the library contents have been transferred, although I do have an open mind for any other suggested uses.

I am not the first to have tried this – local listing for the central library was declined before. Anyway, I am going to try and have made inquiries.

Here is the response to my recent inquiry:

The approach to local listing was updated following the adoption of a report, written by Andrew Meddle, by Cabinet last November. It will in future sit with the Local Development Framework Working Party who will consider proposals on an annual basis and make recommendations on additions to the local list to Cabinet, given that the decision is a planning policy matter. However, the Cabinet report agreed that all requests for local listing would be held in abeyance until the Development Management Development Plan Document (DM DPD) is adopted and a comprehensive review of the local list, and local listing process, undertaken.

The Central Library, Victoria Avenue, is currently not locally listed. Given the process agreed above, at present future additions to the local list are not proposed to be considered by LDF working party until the relevant DM policies are adopted and the local list reviewed, although we will keep a record of all requests at this stage.

Here is some clarification that I sought following on from this:

In terms of new submissions, we cannot confirm a date at this stage but as a rough guide it should be later in 2013 once the DM DPD has been through examination in public.

Ghost town: Carby House

Carby House

1985 was quite a momentous year for me. I passed my driving test on the third attempt, saw my oldest daughter born, and began refereeing. I also embarked on a career in Information Technology.

I was working for HM Customs and Excise and as an avenue for promotion had taken the ADP aptitude test a year or so earlier. I evidently passed the test, and subsequent interview, and working with computers beckoned. I had already been offered promotion, but chose IT for no other reason than it attracted an allowance that boosted my income. As a struggling father, sole wage earner at that time, I was becoming used to a life of penury. I needed the money, and despite knowing little about computers plunged in.

My initiation into IT was a ten-week Common Business Orientated Language course at Carby House. I did all my formal IT training at Carby House over the remainder of the eighties before leaving the comforts of the civil service to become a consultant and enjoy a freelance lifestyle. I took to IT like a duck to water, and still work as a consultant some twenty-seven years later.

Despite Thatcher’s attacks on the civil service Southend had a thriving office community in those days. Carby House was the northernmost of a long row of office blocks along Victoria Avenue. I seem to recall that the building was not the sole preserve of HMC&E and have a vague recollection of a bank on the ground floor.

Not a particularly tall building, at eight floors it still must have hosted a number of departments; I can only recall the training centre and a museum that featured items on smuggling and contraband. Perhaps other memories will come back. It certainly was a smart set-up and included a small canteen.

I was somewhat shocked when I passed Carby House recently. It has been empty for some time now, but it is looking decidedly shabby. It has been vandalised and is doubtless home to vermin, if not also frequented by the homeless as well as those seeking the thrills of vandalism.

It will be bulldozed and the site will house flats at some point, I have little doubt of this. I am not sure I won’t find this equally depressing. I do not mourn for the ghosts of my past, but I do mourn for the high quality jobs that have disappeared from Southend, and which Carby House is a grotesque monument to.

The Avenue is a vista of dereliction at the moment, the High Street is shadow of former glories, the college building a vacant stare, and the central library soon to fall silent. This town is coming like a ghost town.