Town centre road closure changes agreed again - despite petition opposing plans
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
A controversial town centre road closure will be changed after almost 1,600 business owners and residents backing calls to reopen the road.
At an extraordinary meeting held on Zoom on Tuesday night, Beccles Town Council have agreed to measures which could see New Market reopen to traffic months after planters were installed in a bid to aid social distancing.
A similar proposal had been agreed by councillors in August, but delays and unexpected costs have stopped plans being implemented.
Now, the council will seek to end the experimental traffic order currently in place, while applying for an emergency Traffic Regulation Order (TRO), which lasts for 42 days.
During this time, the council will also apply for a temporary TRO with a maximum duration of 18 months.
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Both the new TROs will apply to the closing of the parking bays between Greggs and Barclays, to widen the pavement, while reopening the road every day, other than on Fridays for the market.
Proposing the changes, councillor Graham Catchpole said: “When we first faced with the full reopening of the shops in June, none of us knew what to expect.
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“We were under a lot of pressure from government, district and county councils to do something about it so we closed New Market to traffic and stopped parking along The Walk, which we soon learned our lesson on that and moved the barriers.
“We were also under pressure to close more roads so tables and chairs could be put in the road and thankfully we resisted that.
“Now, we have a reasonably active town with queues outside the banks, people in cafes and pubs, and people in supermarkets and checkout tills, which tells us people have learned how to safely queue, respect each others space and wear face masks. We didn’t have this discipline in June.
“We don’t need to take the heart out of our town by closing New Market.
“This new proposal gets us out of the straitjacket of the experimental order, which it turns out is not very experimental, and gives us 18 months to get back to 99pc of normal.”
The plans were backed by a majority of 8-2 by councillors.
Councillor Richard Stubbings said: “I believe this is a good compromise which opens the town fully and gives a measure of protection against Covid for social distancing which will cost us no more than eight parking spaces.
“The maximum time it will last is 18 months and as soon as the Covid measures are no longer required, I think this council should, and will, ask for this measure to be removed.”
A petition had also been handed to the council ahead of the meeting, signed by 1,594 businesses, residents and visitors, opposing the pedestrianisation of New Market.
Councillor Stephanie Bubb said: “I personally think the planters are too big, ugly and inhibit social distancing.
“People, rightly or wrongly, feel safe in their cars, like to park easily, shop and go home quickly.
“They feel comfortable doing this like they are in a personal bubble in the increasing pandemic.
“We had a petition of nearly 1,600 signatures requesting the reopening and I wish to support all those people and get the town centre back to where people felt comfortable shopping.”
Proposed changes agreed in August were not advanced at the meeting after the council quoted £18,000 as a “worst-case” scenario to fund the amendment, after changes suggested by highways officers.
Councillor Catchpole, who made the initial proposal in August, said: “We did not request gates attached to the planters and more planters installed. The intention was for us to close the road for the market and leave our barriers in place and no extra costs were anticipated.
“This has moved far away from the initial proposal.”
Councillor Stubbings said: “I think it is overengineered, overpriced and not at all what we asked for in August.
“We wanted the town centre to open with just a restriction on parking between Greggs and Barclays and the rest of the town being opened, not having planters obstructing the view or in places we don’t want them.”
Councillor Paul Jackson said: “It was agreed in good faith that there would not be a cost attached to the amendment, which has subsequently transpired at the 11th hour and held the process up.
“It is very frustrating to not have been informed, at any of the occasions when we could have been, that there would be these further costs, and that is not the fault of this council.
“There have been consequences, not least when someone took it upon themselves to move the planters illegally and reopen the square.”
Speaking at the meeting, which was attended by more than 50 members of the public, Craig Anderson, of Linen Press in New Market, called on the council to lift restrictions.
He said: “I have been in retail now for 40 years from the shop floor to different levels of management so I feel I have some experience regarding the high street.
“11 years ago we chose Beccles to open our shop as the town stood apart from all the others in the area because it was busy and vibrant and the hub of the local community, and it didn’t disappoint.
“However, things have greatly changed recently.
“All you need to do is look down New Market any day between Saturday and Thursday to see evidence of this. The town has lost its spark and energy.
“It is so quiet, especially when it rains and we are going to have a lot more rainy days coming.
“We, as a town, can ill afford to lose the chains and the independents as it would stop drawing people into this town. They will use their feet and go somewhere else.
“Our delivery and collection service has doubled since June and the main reason for this is that our customers cannot be bothered to come into Beccles. It is too much hassle, so they ask us to collect and deliver everything, and this cannot be good for the town.
“Without a doubt, lifting these restrictions would make a huge difference and immediately draw customers back to the town.
“Please give us a chance when times are hard enough already. I am sure you don’t want the town to die a death. Let us get back to some sense of normality.”