MORE of New Milton’s town centre road closures are being lifted after a heated debate by councillors about their coronavirus strategy.
Arguments were made over protecting pedestrians from virus spread and addressing traffic congestion and damage to trade as the restrictions were reviewed during Monday’s virtual full council meeting.
Cllr John Ward, one of the members who wanted to see all the closures kept in place, said he was “appalled” by a majority vote to partially reopen Station Road’s junction with Old Milton Road.
“Personally, this is probably the most disappointing meeting I’ve been involved in for 16 years,” he said.
“Clearly, we’re a council of car users who care more about traffic than pedestrians.”
The partial reopening will now allow motorists to travel eastbound along Old Milton Road and through the Station Road traffic lights towards Ashley.
The council was reviewing the Hampshire County Council-approved closures, which were put in place on 28th June, just under two weeks after non-essential businesses reopened.
As reported in the A&T, complaints from businesses of falling trade led to an extraordinary town council meeting deciding to lift barriers blocking access to Osborne Road from Station Road on 26th July.
The closure of a stretch of Old Milton Road between the traffic lights junction with Station Road and Elm Avenue is the main focal point of the council’s Covid-secure measures.
It 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.
During Monday’s meeting councillors heard some members of the public had praised the move, saying it made them feel safer. But they also heard complaints of a surge in traffic using Whitefield Road.
Cllr Valya Schooling told the meeting she had been contacted by a Whitefield Road resident – a woman in her 90s – who speculated traffic there was up 500% due to the Old Milton Road closure.
“She said the fumes and crossing the road are becoming increasingly dangerous,” Cllr Schooling said. “I was quite surprised there was no consultation.”
Cllr Schooling was among a number of members, who believed the closures were causing confusion among pedestrians and did not prevent some from continuing to ignore social distancing.
Among them was Cllr Neil Tungate who, despite himself being classed as particularly vulnerable to the virus, felt the restrictions should be lifted.
“No one pays a blind bit of attention to it,” he said. “You have to be in contact with someone for at least 15 minutes to contract Covid – you don’t catch it by passing someone in the street.”
Cllr Steve Davies called for the partial reopening of the Old Milton Road junction, referring to a recent visit to Lymington where he said no such restrictions were in place despite some particularly narrow sections of pavement.
He stressed the pedestrians he encountered were all behaving responsibly by distancing, wearing face coverings and using hand sanitiser.
However, Cllr Madalaine Craze reported the opposite experience from her own recent visit to Lymington town centre, saying: “The pavements were too tight and I couldn’t wait to get back in my car.
“I think it would be prudent to keep the Station Road junction closed a little longer as there is clearly a spike [in Covid-19 cases] rolling across Europe.”
Cllr Keith Craze added: “We may lose businesses, but it’s better to lose a business than lose a life.”
Cllr Geoffrey Blunden warned the town was experiencing a “honeymoon period” and the situation could worsen in the area soon if there is a second surge in Covid-19 cases.
Cllr Ward said: “I think it’s absolutely appalling that we as councillors still imply we know better than the government’s scientific advisors.
“If we get rid of the closure, we’re saying, ‘Come to New Milton. We don’t care if you don’t keep to two metres’.”
A majority vote of seven to five supported Cllr Davies’ proposal to reopen the eastbound lane of Old Milton Road at its junction with Station Road to relieve stress on traffic in Whitefield Road. This work was set to be carried out at “the earliest and safest opportunity”.
Members also agreed the full town council should continue to review the remaining restrictions every two weeks or set up an emergency review within three days if the pandemic worsens locally.