CONSULTANTS have been hired in to look at the best ways to develop land close to Southend Airport in the next decade.

Southend and Rochford councils are jointly working on a new development plan for the airport area, as part of long-term planning strategies.

In a report to Southend Council's cabinet, enterprise director Andy Lewis defended the use of consultants as "essential".

Without them, the Government might well rule the resulting strategy might be ruled unsound, he suggested.

The Halcrow company has been appointed after tendering for the job, for an undisclosed sum, expected to run into several tens of thousands of pounds.

Southend Council, Rochford District Council and the East of England Development Agency will share the bill.

Anna Waite, councillor responsible for transport, said: "For something like this, which a study of the development policy in the area around the airport, we do not have either the capacity or the expertise in the council to carry it out.

"Because the cost is being split three ways, I have no idea what the cost of the consultants will be.

"I think there are times when there is a place for consultants - and this is one of them.

"About 2,000 jobs are currently based around the airport and those jobs are important for Southend, so we need to get its future right."

Airport managing director Alistair Welch welcomed news of the study.

"We will be aiming to work with them in conjunction with our own masterplan for the development of the airport," he said.

The consultants' report is likely to be presented to the council next January.

Its findings will then go out to public consultation, with a final action plan likely to be adopted in the spring of 2009.