Burnham-On-Sea’s temporary High Street pedestrianisation and road changes have been extended to July 15th following a full debate by town councillors last night (Monday).
The temporary pedestrianisation and road changes have been put in place to enable shoppers to keep socially distanced while using the town centre during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Town councillors heard that many shop owners say their trade has been hit since the Burnham High Street pedestrianisation scheme started on June 18th – while many shoppers say they are in support of the scheme.
At a special ‘extraordinary’ online meeting of the council’s Town Improvements Committee on Monday (June 29th), councillors voted to extend the pedestrianisation until July 15th to allow an extra week of time to gather feedback from shoppers and traders.
Chairman Cllr Nick Tolley said: “We’ve all been approached by various tradespeople and various members of the public in recent days and there is a whole mixed bag of feelings on what is going on.”
During a debate about when to lift the pedestrianisation, Cllr Peter Clayton said: “This was a ‘change management situation’ for us where we had to react to government guidance at the time for the two metre rule. Obviously, pedestrianisation had to happen to some extent in the High Street because of the pavements. However, now the restrictions are being eased to 1-metre plus, and given that the footfall is so low at the moment I believe the restriction should be relaxed and I personally think the one-way system should be removed as soon as possible. This will aid the recovery of the High Street. Pedestrianisation has had mixed feelings – some people like it, some people don’t. I think we’ve done what we needed to do.”
Cllr Dawn Carey responded: “When you read the feedback I would say the majority of residents love the fact that the High Street is pedestrianised. I totally take onboard the traders’ concerns here but my concern is that now everybody’s starting to move about and go visiting again, we are going to get a massive influx of visitors coming to the High Street. We all know what Burnham is like on a busy summer’s day – there is no way we will be able to maintain one metre’s distance in the High Street if we get an influx of holidaymakers and tourists.”
She added: “That’s likely because the majority of people are not going abroad any time soon. It’s interesting to note that I’ve had quite a lot of feedback from residents and people on mobility scooters who also say how safe they feel going up the High Street. This isn’t going to be an easy decision and, as Peter quite rightly said, there’s going to be people for and against this, but I for one would like to see this actually put out to the public to see what their opinions are.”
Cllr Andy Hodge added: “I think all the way through this process we knew this was going to be a divisive situation, but I think we have been pro-active as a Town Council. We have been pro-active to the pandemic, putting safety at the heart of all the decisions we have made. I think we have seen from the footfall information there has been a ‘nervous’ return to the High Street and it looks like this has been replicated around the country. Most High Streets are seeing 30-40% less footfall and some people say they are not going to come back until they feel very, very safe.”
Cllr Phil Harvey said: “The crucial question here is not whether it’s actually better or worse for residents and visitors or better or worse for our shopkeepers; the crucial question is what is the safest thing to do. There has been talk about people not liking queuing outside shops, but the capacity of the shops isn’t going to change, so queuing is still going to occur whether we get rid of pedestrianisation or not. If we get rid of it, of course, the amount of space to pass becomes smaller; social distancing therefore becomes more difficult and people will become even less confident about returning.”
“I think if we consider what’s going to happen in the next week to ten days – cafes are going to be able to open again and the holiday camps and holiday sites are also going to be re-opening. So the potential is there that we will have the potential for large numbers of visitors. If we don’t have the High Street pedestrianised we will get many more people on the narrow pavements and the safety will decrease.”
“The cafe, restaurant and eating-out sector is going to be probably one of those most badly hit because its capacity is limited. If we continue to have the High Street pedestrianised, then at least some of those cafes can apply to get emergency licences to put their tables and chairs out to increase their capacity.”
Cllr Harvey added: “To my mind it would be premature to remove pedestrianisation because of the increase in numbers and because of the ability to try and help our cafes to re-open. I think we ought to keep it going longer and I think we should be actually be thinking in terms of an exit strategy – we should consider the government’s five point of the scale. We are still nationally on the Alert Level 4 and I would be very reluctant to see us re-opening before we have dropped down to Alert Level 3. The ‘R’ number is still round about 0.7 to 1 here in Somerset – it is low – but in another few days the population of this stretch of the Somerset coastline is likely to double and if that happens I think we need to be prepared for it. We need to play it safe and I suggest we shouldn’t ease the lockdown until we’re at Level 3. As a tentative date I would say the end of July.”
Cllr Chris Allen added: “Initially I was quite against pedestrianisation but I can accept the reason for it and it feels that we haven’t given it long enough yet. We need to give a bit longer. The last few weeks haven’t actually been the best and people are not coming out in their droves yet, but I think from next week it will be a different situation, depending on the weather.”
She added: “My concern has always been more what happens inside the shops and my limited experience has been in Boots, the shoe repair shop and GW Hurleys, and in each of those places it has been working quite well. I would like to see pedestrianisation go on for a short time more and then we look at it again.”
Cllr Mike Murphy said: “Over the years I have been against pedestrianisation because of the lack of immediate car parking in the area. I watched this thing develop and… I think shoppers are nervous about going to the shops after getting used to being at home, shopping online and watching Netflix.”
“To remove the pedestrianisation now at this stage would be a knee-jerk reaction against what we’ve already done. I think we have to keep confidence in ourselves and we have to support the measures taken by Somerset County Council and Sedgemoor District Council, and work together. Once we’ve done that over this coming weekend, if it’s absolutely dire, we can then make decisions.”
Cllr Janet Keen added: “There’s a great deal of common sense being spoken here because by 8th July we won’t have enough evidence. If this continues for another couple of weeks until the end of July then we would have evidence as to whether or not this is a beneficial move. It’s not only the visitors that we have to consider, it is the traders themselves. If they continue to suffer a loss of business, some of them may not be in existence by the end of the summer. I would like to see the restrictions continuing for another couple of weeks to give us better information on which to base the decision.”
Cllr Andy Hodge added: “Perhaps this is not a ‘black or white’ decision. It is interesting to see similar conversations are happening in other towns at the moment. We did the right thing using the bank of evidence we had at the time to keep our town safe. There could be some areas that we improve such as widening walking areas, extra sanitization stations and doing more work on safety with traders.”
But Cllr Allen cautioned: “If we were to relax these restrictions too early and then find in fact that this wasn’t the right thing to do, bringing them back in again would be difficult. I think it would be better to carry on with them now for a bit longer and gather a bit more information rather than find later that we have to put it all back in place again.”
The Town Council’s Deputy Clerk Lorna Williams said that four sanitizer units have been installed in the High Street using funds from SDC with two more units to follow at the junctions in coming days.
Burnham Chamber of Trade told the meeting that the majority of traders in the High Street are against the pedestrianisation, with some seeing big falls in trade during recent days which is putting some businesses’ viabilities at risk. It was noted that just a small number of shops have seen increases in trade. The safety of shoppers, though, remains the top priority, added the Chamber, and the group is keen to see safety measures taken to keep shoppers safe and improve their confidence in visiting the town centre.
Cllr Harvey added: “I would like to see the pedestrianisation running for three weekends, starting this coming weekend for the first weekend of the lockdown being eased for certain shops, pubs and restaurants. My guess is that there may not be all that many people about dipping their toes in, so I’d like to see the next couple of weekends as well. I suggest that we initially ask the County Council to continue this for an extra fortnight until the 22nd of July and that we meet on July 20th for a decision.”
Cllr Murphy added: “July 20th is too long. Two and a half weeks to abandon the High Street is not taking enough responsibility. If it’s not happening, the High Street will lose money.”
Cllr Carey and Cllr Clayton said they would want to encourage feedback and consultation with residents and traders on the impact of the pedestrianisation.
Cllr Clayton proposed that a council meeting be held on July 13th and that Somerset County Council Highways be asked to extend Burnham’s pedestrianisation and road measures until July 15th. The proposal was seconded by Cllr Andy Hodge and unanimously approved.