A TRADER who campaigned against the closure of a New Milton town centre road – shut to help social distancing – has welcomed its reopening following a review by councillors.
Sameer Tarakhan, director of The Barbers at Number One in Osborne Road, was among business representatives who complained their trade was suffering after access to that road was blocked from Station Road.
This was among High Street restrictions the town council put in place on 28th June – two weeks after non-essential businesses reopened.
But feedback from angry traders, who also included Jon Cooper from Shoecare and Mike Miller at DVD Plus, prompted a rethink.
As reported in the A&T, Mr Cooper was among the signatories to a letter Mr Tarakhan wrote to the town council, calling for them to lift the Osborne Road closure.
This had been put in place to alleviate the additional overflow traffic using Whitefield Road as a result of the other closure – the stretch of Old Milton Road from its junction with Station Road south to the Elm Avenue junction.
The businesses felt they were losing potential customers who either did not want to spend extra time accessing the Osborne Road car park via Spencer Road or did not know how to do this.
An extraordinary meeting of the full town council was held last Friday afternoon, resulting in members voting to lift the Osborne Road closure to help stimulate trade in the area.
Speaking after the barriers were lifted yesterday (Sunday) morning, Mr Tarakhan praised the town council’s “amazing” response to the concerns raised.
“I’m very happy,” he told the A&T.
“They did the sensible thing, making it easy for everyone. They’ve made it easier for customers and the community in New Milton, it’s easier to get access to the car park and it’s easier to park.
“We understand health and safety, obviously, but it’s good that they’ve responded and listened to the comments and feedback.”
But, following the virtual debate, councillors agreed the Old Milton Road junction closure should remain in place for the time being.
This involves the left-hand lane from Station Road south being blocked off at the traffic lights to allow pedestrians to spill out from a narrow section of pavement from Superdrug to Charles Nobel jewellers on the corner.
Alan Watson, chairman of the New Milton Residents’ Association, told the meeting a “small majority” out of 50 emails he received about the closures said they were “ill-advised and unnecessary”.
Opening discussions on the matter, town mayor Cllr Alvin Reid stressed the council cared about both the health and wellbeing of residents and visitors, and the financial health of its businesses.
“The health of our traders is key to the vitality of our town, and we want to encourage all residents, residents of other towns and holiday makers to visit our town and enjoy the experience,” he said.
“Unlike individuals, local councils are legally bound to make the environment safe, so we did what we believed was right in the circumstances based on central government guidelines.
“Over the intervening period the situation has changed, and the public health risk is possibly lower than hitherto.”
Cllr Steve Davies shared his pride with the Covid-secure measures put in place in the town centre, citing clear reminders for pedestrians to keep left and maintain social distancing.
But he passed on a report from New Forest District Council that its car parks in Osborne Road and Elm Avenue had been underused since the road closures were put in place.
Cllr Valya Schooling said shops and businesses needed increased footfall to thrive.
“We have to believe in everybody’s understanding of the situation,” she said.
“We have markings on the road and people now have to wear masks in shops which is a good idea but I don’t think will last very long.
“I think it’s time to open the roads up and put it out there that it is easy to come into New Milton and shop.”
Although stressing social distancing should not be ignored, Cllr Steve Clarke also believed people should be allowed to observe this using common sense.
Believing all the closures should be lifted, he argued the town council was otherwise “feeding people’s fears”.
He said: “We are talking about people walking in the open air.”
“The scientists tell us that if you’re in the fresh air passing people casually, there is almost zero chance of infection.
“We should allow common sense and not be dominated by fear and risk that doesn’t really exist.
“I think for the wellbeing of this country, the mental health of this country and the economy of this country, things should get back to normal.”
But Cllr Keith Craze and a number of other members believed the Old Milton Road junction closure should remain in place, with just the Osborne Road closure lifted.
He was also unconvinced that people would comply with last Friday’s introduction of mandatory facemasks for shoppers.
“I do not think we can trust people to be sensible,” Cllr Craze said.
“In the New Forest we have had 456 cases [of coronavirus] – there is still an endemic in process. We need to remove the barriers as we go, not so quickly that we risk the pandemic coming back in a more serious state in the area.”
Cllr Clarke’s comments about provoking fear were criticised by Cllr John Ward, who did not like the insinuation that some town councillors felt they knew better than government officials.
Having recently returned from a holiday in Cornwall, Cllr Ward pointed out a “far more rigid” approach had been taken in high streets there to aid social distancing.
This included barriers being put up during main trading hours to prevent all vehicles entering shopping centres in Falmouth, St Ives and Truro.
Telling members he had heard only positive comments about the Cornish restrictions, he even suggested it might have been better to do the same thing for the entire length of Station Road.
Also believing the closure at the Old Milton Road junction should remain in place, Cllr Helen Wallis-Dowling referred to her father’s recent death after testing positive for Covid-19.
But she said: “For me this is not about fear, but about being courageous.
“It’s having the courage to say we are taking these decisions on measures to safeguard people at this time.”
Members supported Cllr Davies’ proposal – seconded by Cllr Craze – that the Osborne Road closure be lifted by a unanimous vote. Cllr Reid abstained as chairman.
A proposal by Cllr Geoffrey Blunden that all restrictions at the Old Milton Road junction remain in place, which was also seconded by Cllr Craze, was carried by a majority vote of six to three.
This came after a defeated counter-proposal by Cllr Davies to retain the restriction at the Charles Nobel corner but reopen Old Milton Road’s eastbound carriageway towards Ashley. Seconded by Cllr Clarke, this proposal gained only five votes in favour.
It was also agreed that the restrictions be reviewed again at the next full town council meeting on 10th August.