BRINGING visitors back to our high streets amid the Covid-19 pandemic has been a challenge for many councils across the UK.

But one way this was done during the height of lockdown was by pedestrianising streets - as visitors would be able to shop and social distance at the same time, or sit outside a café if they did not feel comfortable inside.

During the pandemic, many shops and restaurants were forced to close and people turned to shopping online.

According to data from the High Streets Task Force (experts who provide advice to local authorities ‘seeking to breathe new life’ into their high streets), the impact of Covid-19 has been ‘profound’, with footfall volumes in high streets and town centres falling by 89.86% during the height of lockdown (March 28, 2020).

But pedestrianisation was used as one way of bringing people back – and here in Somerset the closure to vehicles on one street in Taunton has sparked a big debate in the town.

Discussions are taking place to decide what traffic restrictions, if any, should be introduced on East Street. The road was closed during the pandemic to help with social distancing, but re-opened in May this year due to the severe traffic congestion caused by roadworks on Paul Street.

Somerset County Gazette: East Street, Taunton ; open / re-opened

Many other streets across the UK have been closed to vehicles and seem to be thriving, but the reaction has not always been positive.

In Bristol, a group protested the pedestrianisation of Princess Victoria Street in June. The street in Clifton Village was due to be closed to general traffic in an 18 month experimental traffic order.

Protestors placed a coffin – labelled the ‘death of democracy’ – in the road. This was to highlight how the high street economy would suffer if the closure to vehicles went ahead.

However, the pedestrianisation of streets in Wandsworth, London, has led to an average 30 per cent increase in footfall.

And already in Taunton, St James Street has been closed to traffic since May 2019. Many businesses in the area, which is now known as Taunton Independent Quarter, are pleased with the pedestrianisation of the street.

Somerset County Gazette:

Susie Thomas, joint owner of Rocket & Bird, said pedestrianising the street had transformed it into a ‘pleasant’ space where people can ‘relax, shop and enjoy the businesses’.

“It has become an area where people slow down and meander in the street as opposed to having to watch over their shoulder for cars,” she said.

“People now sit outside at Wickets and enjoy lunch or coffee on a sunny day. The fruit and veg at Granny Smiths doesn’t get covered in car fumes and during the pandemic people have been able to queue safely along the road.

“The car free environment is quieter, safer, more vibrant and less polluted. St James St is a national cycle route so we do still have cyclists using the road - however the majority ride courteously and slowly so as not to cause accidents.

“On a good weather day it’s lovely to see a mixture of people using the street, from cyclists to children, from people in wheelchairs to the elderly…it’s definitely a friendlier place than it ever was before.”

Somerset West and Taunton Council (SWT) said they have engaged with ‘many groups’ from across Taunton to get their views on the potential road closure. They have also said this will be followed up by another public consultation to allow all Taunton residents to comment.

Somerset County Gazette: SOCIAL DISTANCING: East Street, Taunton, when the shops re-opened after lockdown

Cllr Mike Rigby, executive member for planning and transport, said: “Engaging widely across different stakeholder groups has been a priority for the council giving everyone a chance to voice their concerns and share their experiences, many of which have been positive.

“These responses and suggestions are now helping to inform us as we shape our proposals for the future of East Street.”

However, there have not always been positive views surrounding the closure of East Street. Taunton Disability Action Group, who had concerns that the closure would make it difficult for people with disabilities to get to the town centre shops, said they would welcome their members being invited to give their views during the public consultation phase.

“It is vitally important to build an accessible environment for visitors with impairments,” said a spokesperson for Taunton Disability Action Group.

“We hope the plans we are presented with during the consultation fully detail these arrangements. We look forward to our members being invited to give their views during the formal consultation phase too.

“We sincerely hope the local authority has considered the different ways it needs to engage with individuals to ensure its consultation process is accessible. We want to work with the local authority as a disabled person’s consultative group and welcome anyone with an interest in issues that affect the lives of disabled people.”

As well as engagement with groups across the area, a consultation group has been set up to discuss the potential road closure of East Street. It includes representatives from the Taunton Chamber of Commerce, Avon and Somerset Police, Somerset Disability Engagement Service, Buses of Somerset, Taunton Taxi Association, Taunton Area Cycling Campaign, and Taunton Transition Town.

Colin Barrell, from Taunton Chamber of Commerce, said there are ‘many challenges to be overcome’ before a decision is made.

“For example, public transport still needs to have good access to drop off and pick up their customers, whether that is a bus or a taxi,” he said.

“Blue badge holders need to have provision to be able to get to shops without having to walk too far. Wheelchair and mobility scooter users need better and more places to be able to negotiate kerbs. Cyclists need to feel safe from people opening car doors, whilst pedestrians need to be protected from cyclists.

“If the consultation group can address all these issues, there could be a great future for East Street and consequently, Taunton as a whole.

“I am hopeful for a good solution which will please the residents and the businesses of the town and make it a better place to visit. We do know that we won't be able to please 100% of the people and there will be funding issues to be overcome, but you do have to start with a vision and be determined to make it happen."

Somerset County Gazette: BUSY: St James Street in Taunton

But according to SWT, Stantec (the consultants in the East Street decision) mentioned multiple other examples of successful pedestrianisation schemes across the country to members of the consultation group.

And schemes like this have worked elsewhere in the country. In London, Wandsworth Council has a variety of temporary closures, for example, these are just over weekends, or even just over the summer.

The three streets involved in these schemes include Northcote Road (a busy street in Clapham Junction, Battersea which has a popular street market), Old York Road in Wandsworth Town, and Battersea High Street.

Bedford Hill in Balham has also been closed over three weekends during this summer.

Cllr Rhodri Morgan, from Wandsworth Council, said the pedestrianisation of streets in Wandsworth has led to an average 30 per cent increase in footfall. The council has also estimated that the schemes directly supported 200 hospitality jobs in 2020.

“The pedestrianisation scheme was piloted last summer and proved such a success it has been put in place this summer as well,” he said.

“As well as encouraging people to visit, the closure means tables and chairs can be put outside, helping people visiting restaurants to socially distance. The council helped by simplifying the process of applying for a street licence.

“The success of any particular type of scheme will depend on the type of street. For example the Northcote Road scheme is weekend only, which we think strikes a balance between the needs of shoppers, local people and visitors to, and through, the area.

“It also helps to create a really special weekend buzz.”

When questioned about the use of part-time closures in Taunton as a potential solution to East Street, SWT said a part-time closure has been considered. However, the consultation group felt this would ‘present an issue with the safety of all road users’ if it was not clear about what times the roads would be open to vehicles.

But there are still plans to place some traffic restrictions on the road, whether these are temporary or permanent.

“The council has ambitious aspirations in line with its garden town status, making Taunton a place where people want to live, work and shop,” added Mr Rigby.

“Integral to this is our long-standing commitment to creating a town centre environment that is better for residents and shoppers, helping businesses to thrive while allowing for improved traffic flow.”

Somerset County Gazette: PEDESTRIANISED: St James Street in Taunton