FEARS of a serious collision and congestion concerns prompted a lifting of the last of the controversial road closures meant to aid social distancing in New Milton high street.
A majority vote was taken to remove the barriers blocking Old Milton Road at the traffic lights crossroad with Station Road and Ashley Road – which could come as soon as Friday.
It followed another fierce debate during an extraordinary meeting of the full town council yesterday (Monday).
Some argued the risk of Covid-19 transmission on the street was too low to justify the disruption caused to motorists and traders. But others maintained caution was still needed to ensure the area’s infection rates remain low.
As reported in the A&T, Monday 10th August’s full council meeting saw a majority vote to reopen Old Milton Road’s eastbound lane to allow traffic to pass through the crossroad and travel towards Ashley.
The main reason was to relieve increased congestion in Whitefield Road. But this work had not been carried out despite being given the go-ahead by highways authority Hampshire County Council.
The town council’s estates and facilities manager, Mark Jeffries, raised concerns this could cause more confusion among pedestrians, so mayor Cllr Alvin Reid advised him not to proceed before yesterday’s virtual meeting.
Mr Jeffries pointed out the current traffic road order approved by HCC was valid until 31st December, so measures can be put back in place before then if needed.
As reported in the A&T, the Old Milton Road junction closure has been the focal point of the town council’s traffic measures – authorised by HCC – to address a narrow stretch of pavement.
Since 28th June this has allowed pedestrians to spill onto an extra lane in Station Road’s approach to the traffic lights.
Complaints from businesses of falling trade had already resulted in the removal of barriers blocking access to Osborne Road from Station Road north on 26th July.
Cllr Valya Schooling shared concerns raised by several Whitefield Road residents, particularly the elderly, about increased traffic flow caused by the Old Milton Road junction closure.
Despite having previously voted for the junction’s partial reopening, Cllr Schooling now felt the closure should be lifted completely.
She added: “I have no doubt that keeping that road closed is affecting trade in the town.”
Agreeing with Cllr Schooling’s point about Whitefield Road’s elderly residents, Cllr Steve Clarke maintained that the Old Milton Road closure should be completely lifted.
But he stressed the town council “must not accept criticism” for doing what it could for the safety of the community.
Cllr Clarke also voiced fears a serious or even fatal road traffic collision could take place if the closures remain in place, citing reported near-misses involving diverted traffic.
He pointed out a lorry had damaged a railing and section of pavement while turning onto Station Road from Ashley Road, opposite the Old Milton Road junction closure, over the weekend.
“We are at a real risk of having a serious and significant accident in the town,” he said. “There is also the inconsiderate driving, with people using other parts of the town as a rat-run to catch up.”
Although agreeing with Cllr Christine Ward that the closure should be lifted, Cllr David Hawkins criticised her argument that there was “hysteria” over Covid-19 and people should not be too panicked.
Cllr Hawkins said: “This is a world pandemic, for goodness sake! It’s not something that’s going to just go away.”
Having previously strongly criticised the stance taken by some of his colleagues in opposing the closures, Cllr John Ward said: “This all continues to be an indication that we think more of cars and drivers.
“If there is a problem, quite obviously one option would be to put temporary traffic lights anywhere along Whitefield Road for pedestrians only.”
Speaking in his first debate on the matter, newly co-opted councillor Dean Samber felt the closure should be kept in place.
“My understanding is the town council implemented the closures on public health advice at the beginning of the pandemic and that advice has not changed,” he said.
Ultimately an eight-to-six vote supported Cllr Clarke’s proposal that all of the road closures be lifted and Station Road returned to normal.
This will be subject to final approval by HCC, and Mr Jeffries told the meeting guardrails would have to be reinstated and traffic light frequencies modified. He hoped the junction could be reopened early on Friday morning.