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Small town with big designs

A new-look college is set to do for Southend what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao. Andrew Mourant reports

TO alight from the train at Southend Victoria station is to confront a parade of banal 1960s office buildings dehumanising in their scale. Some are empty, displaying "To Let" signs, monuments to the many jobs that have been sucked away.

Less than half a mile away, opposite Southend Central station, construction engineers are busy once more. A new building for South East Essex College - the biggest development in the town since the 1970s - is taking shape. At pound;52 million, the most expensive college construction project in further education history, it is a statement of intent.

From empty offices to the mouldering seafront Palace Hotel, now a hostel for the homeless, Southend has an air of being down on its luck. It is hoped that the new college building, dazzling in its ambition, will "kick-start a virtuous cycle of renewal and growth".

"This is almost our Guggenheim," says principal Jan Hodges, the memory of her holiday in Bilbao still vivid.

Southend lies within Thames Gateway, one of Europe's largest regeneration projects. Big schemes need landmark buildings as keystones. "The aspirations of the local people need to be raised," said Mrs Hodges.

Deputy principal David Latham agrees. "Southend has always had a small-town mentality," he said. "There's an odd social mix and a low skills base."

The complex, ranging from four to eight storeys, and designed by London architects KSS, will be fronted by an atrium, a focal point on a grand scale that includes an egg-shaped auditorium seating 250, an amphitheatre, social and meeting areas for staff and students and a cafe. A Termodeck ventilation system should make the college substantially more energy-efficient than traditional air-conditioned structures.

Money has come from various sources: 35 per cent from the Learning and Skills Council; pound;12m from college reserves; and pound;12m borrowed.

There is also backing from the University of Essex and the Higher Education Funding Council. A deal has been struck with developers Equion plc that ensures costs remain fixed.

Even before 1993 and incorporation, the college was hatching plans for a big move. The new building, on which work started last October, is due for completion by August 2004. With it, South East Essex hopes to buttress its reputation. Since the 1990s it has operated "an open learning philosophy" in which classrooms are out and students operate in informal open spaces with tutors on hand. Without a university for 30 miles, the college's capacity to offer complete degree courses in association with the University of Essex is crucial.

"As a town we export graduates," said Mrs Hodges. "We want to get people who will qualify and stay in the local area."

"When the building is complete, we expect a growth spurt that will create new job and career opportunities."

The premises will need to be all things to all students, to tempt undergraduates, but also cater for 14 to 16-year-olds who, as children, need supervision.

Mrs Hodges does not see a problem. "Many are on the premises of training provider partners," she said. "We do have some but they haven't been a problem. When it comes to behaving they raise their game."

In a world of myriad options, uplifting surroundings may prove decisive. As trains draw into Southend Central, the atrium, and the life within it, will loom large. It will, Jan Hodges hopes, be a magnet - the shop window that proclaims a better future not only for students but Southend and beyond.

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