The Pedestrianisation in Newbury Town Centre – spokespersons from the local councils have their say

On 10 September 2020, West Berkshire and Newbury Town Councillor David Marsh of the Green Party made a speech to the WBC’s Full Council concerning the issue of the 24/7 pedestrianisation of Newbury Town Centre. This was introduced as a temporary measure by West Berkshire Council in June 2020 and ran until 31 August. Opinions have since been divided as to whether it should be continued for a longer trial period or permanently, perhaps with some variations to the temporary scheme or whether matters should (as they currently have) revert back to the original arrangements.

Newbury’s debate about this is not unique. Towns up and down the country, including Wantage and Marlborough in the immediate area, are considering, experimenting or consulting on similar changes. Every town is different and so few schemes are completely transferable. The needs of shoppers, of retailers, of pedestrians, of cyclists, of delivery firms, of transport companies, of taxi drivers and of the emergency services are not always identical. The needs of assisting local economies during Covid-19 and the responsibilities that many councils (including Newbury and West Berkshire) have accepted as a result of having declared climate emergencies can also work against each other.

Any council which attempts to make a change of this kind is to be commended though it’s clearly going to be impossible to find a consensus that will please everyone. It’s probably true to say that a dispassionate assessment of the current arrangements in any particular place might reveal just as many problems or disadvantages as any new scheme/s being proposed. The advantage these current schemes do all have, of course, is that they’ve been in place for years and so people have long since adjusted to them. One might therefore wonder if a three-month trial, as happened in Newbury, is long enough for everyone to get used to the new arrangements, particularly when this has been conducted during unusual and atypical circumstances.

David Marsh’s statement follows, reproduced verbatim. Following that are comments from the other two political parties represented on West Berkshire and Newbury Town Councils.

“Let’s start with one thing we can all agree on: the 24-hour traffic-free zone has been a success. The council leader herself said: “Pedestrianisation has given residents the confidence to come back into the high street.” The stated objectives were to “support the local economy”, to “support outdoor eating space”, and to “allow social distancing in a safe, traffic-free environment”.

“So what’s changed? Who decided that this only applied for a few weeks in summer? We still have social distancing signs in the streets, queues outside shops, pubs and restaurants in need of pavement licences. With Covid-19 continuing, and the real threat of a spike, it is folly to pretend we can go back to “business as usual” now. Think carefully about what we could be putting at risk just to give some drivers a short cut.

“We don’t yet know what longer-term changes Covid-19 will herald in people’s work and travel. We do know that traffic on the A339 is much lighter than it was, so there is no need to ‘ease pressure’ on it, in Cllr Somner’s phrase, by reopening the town centre. This decision is not only rash and premature; it also makes a mockery of the council’s commitment to the new Environment Strategy, a key theme of which is ‘supporting active travel … cycling and walking’.

“Cllr Doherty is quoted as saying ‘the consensus among businesses she had spoken to was that they wanted people to be able to drive past their shops and restaurants again.’ You can drive past Griffins as often as you like but it won’t sell a single extra Famous Newbury Sausage. Lynne, you aren’t allowed to park there! (You can, of course, park in a car park two minutes away and walk.) Yes, businesses have struggled since the lockdown but this is as true of the retail park as it is of the town centre. Meanwhile the market has increased trade – at least in part because the Market Place is so pleasant without the traffic.

“The town council’s shoppers’ survey found that, with people who regularly visit the town centre, by far the most popular option was to keep the new arrangements. If you think about it, this is just common sense. Who in their right mind wants to sit outside Costa or Côte breathing in exhaust fumes with their cup of coffee or glass of wine? Businesses were just getting used to the new set-up. If they believed they could trust this council to continue with it, they would feel more confident about investing in outdoor seating. Another missed opportunity.

“I took some photographs on Monday just before and after the traffic returned. (I even tweeted them, for Cllr Mackinnon’s benefit.) At 4.57, Northbrook Street was still fairly busy with shoppers, some with pushchairs, mainly socially distancing. Within four minutes, there was a queue of cars, engines running, at the bridge, and everyone had fled to the pavement. It’s dangerous, as well as unhealthy, to facilitate a rat-run through the town centre at 5pm, when the shops are still open. Before long it will be dark by that time. How would members feel if a child were hit by a vehicle turning the blind corner into Mansion House Street this winter?

In summary, a 24-hour traffic-free zone in Newbury is good for business and popular with shoppers; it makes social distancing easier, and our town centre cleaner, healthier, safer, and quieter, in line with government policy on active travel and with our own Environment Strategy.

The transport secretary talks of a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to shift attitudes towards active and sustainable travel. He’s right. I appeal to the executive: please do the right thing and give the town centre back to the people.

Representatives of the Lib Dems and the Conservatives in West Berkshire were also asked for the comments, which are reproduced below.

“It is easy in hindsight to say that the ending of the 24/7 ban was premature,” commented Lib Dem Newbury Town Councillor, West Berkshire Councillor and Shadow Transport portfolio holder Tony Vickers, “but I do agree with David that it wasn’t necessary to end it. There is no sign of approaching gridlock on the A339 and the only people really put in a difficult position by not being able to drive down Northbrook Street are residents making short car trips across town, visitors whose satnavs may be misleading them into thinking that the route is (was) open between 5pm and 10am and those who need mobility aids when ShopMobility isn’t operating. Deliveries were being allowed, as was blue-light access.

“At best, the evidence from surveys of businesses and customers was evenly balanced. There was no urgent need to allow traffic through Northbrook Street. Undoubtedly the street is safer for pedestrians without having to look out for vehicles (especially while queuing for shops) and much safer for cyclists. It also tips the balance of convenience towards ‘active travel’, which is what the government says it wants.

“The compromise we would have liked the Highway Authority to seriously discuss, and still hope we can revert to, is for the town centre to be open for traffic only between 11pm and 9am, when there really isn’t anything open that would like to spill out into the road. Several pubs, cafés and restaurants in Bartholomew Street and Northbrook Street would invest in the tables and chairs to extend their trading to the outdoors in the evening, if they knew that the Council really wanted an evening economy. So long as this virus is restricting the use of indoor licensed premises and café customers, people will be happy to wrap up and sit outdoors (weather permitting) and it ought to help our local businesses.”

His fellow Newbury and West Berkshire Councillor Andy Moore agreed: “I absolutely share Tony’s view about the proposed night-time hours,” he observed. “This was a view that the five of us who are Town Councillors for the West Fields Ward (Newbury Central for WBC) formed fairly early on. Now is the right time to work on changes (which might include more than just alterations to the times when the streets would be open and closed). Newbury Town Council has formed a Town Centre Working Group to try to move these issues forward.

“Had I been able to speak in response to Cllr Marsh’s motion, I would have been critical of the lack of consultation by WBC with Ward members, either before the 24/7 timings came in, or indeed when they were returned to 1000-1700.  I would also have urged WBC’s officers, in particular, to engage properly with the NTC Working Group – up to now their response to invitations has been lukewarm in my view.”

“This matter has caused great debate around Newbury, for Town and District Councillors, residents, shoppers and motorists alike,” West Berkshire Council’s Transport portfolio holder Richard Somner said. “Questions have been raised through the Executive meeting of the Council and a motion received to Full Council which has been referred by the Chairman of Council to the Transport Advisory Group (TAG) for further discussion.

“The administration and the officers have always been very clear that the town-centre 24-hour pedestrianisation was introduced as a temporary measure taken during extremely difficult times. It was to help with the reopening of the town centre by enabling more space for pedestrians and allow businesses to utilise pavement space. The proposal was always to return traffic timings to normal after the summer period to coincide with schools returning.  This has always been made abundantly clear to all stakeholders: key organisations that were involved from the initial stages of discussion.

“Comments about air quality and road safety are unfounded. It is inevitable that keeping the town centre closed to traffic 24/7 will increase traffic and cause congestion elsewhere, with associated air quality and road safety issues on the alternative routes.  As an authority we must not forget that the A339 is subject to air quality management.

“To state that pedestrianisation is popular with shoppers is highly questionable. I am yet to see any evidence to back this up. Indeed surveys undertaken and shared by Newbury BID and Newbury Todayfailed to give a consensus and were dived equally. My understanding of communications provided by Newbury Town Council to myself and officers at West Berkshire indicated that they were as equally as divided on the matter.

“The outcome therefore remains that there is no justification for the Council to deviate from the original decision. This decision is neither rash nor premature and we must remember that we have not moved from a 24-hour closure to a 24-hour opening – the times for the town-centre pedestrianised zone has reverted back to 10am to 5pm. With the schools returning, the time was right to return the pedestrianisation to the normal time to ensure there is no detrimental impact on the wider traffic network and further impact on the economy.

“As an authority we have closely followed government guidance with the provision of both temporary and permanent measures to encourage active travel and assist with the safe reopening of town centres. The Council remains committed to delivery of the Environment Strategy and will, of course, continue to work hard to encourage walking and cycling and to develop a full programme of active travel measures across the district. We await a government decision on the second round of available funding to allow us to continue the success of the first phase of this programme.

“To be clear, for this to be a long term, permanent measure a full consultation will be required, further discussion of this will take place during the TAG as mentioned previously.”

 

The photograph at the top of the post was taken on 29 August 2020 and shows (left to right) Newbury Town Councillors Sarah Slack, Gary Norman, Martin Colston (holding the shopper survey) and Olivia Lewis.

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