This evening I attended a meeting over Zoom between officers of Basildon Borough Council and local retailers and business owners in Billericay High Street to discuss the safe re-opening of the High Street, as we move into the next phase of the easing of the lockdown from Monday. The High Street falls within my Billericay East ward.
Both my ward colleagues, Cllrs David Dadds and Stuart Sullivan, were in attendance, albeit David was attending in his capacity as a business owner in the High Street. We were joined by our Group Leader and his deputy, Cllrs Andrew Baggott and Kevin Blake, who both represent neighbouring Burstead, as well as our two Essex county councillors, Cllrs Anthony Hedley and Dr Richard Moore, who are also Basildon borough councillors for Billericay West and Burstead respectively. Cllr Jim Devlin, the Chairman of Billericay Town Council, also logged on. So the civic leadership of Billericay was well represented. It was gratifying that so many of our high street retailers and businesses were able to join in the call to pitch in their ideas and hear the facts.
Notable by his absence was the Leader of the Council, Cllr Gavin Callaghan, who sent his apologies (pressing matters of state, no doubt). Neither of the two co-signatories to his infamous letter to Essex County Council attended either. In fact, not a single member of the Administration deigned to log on to the call. It was left to the unelected officers to manage the meeting. Some might call that rather telling.
As residents will be aware, concerns were raised after the Leader wrote to Cllr Kevin Bentley, the Cabinet Member for Infrastructure at Essex County Council, requesting that Billericay High Street be fully pedestrianised in order to facilitate the necessary social distancing measures as the high street re-opens.
“I would never implement a strategy that would lead to a negative impact on the safety or prosperity of those in Billericay”. ~ Cllr Kevin Bentley, Essex County Council
As I have already stressed, the Administration did this without consulting ward members, Billericay Town Council, or any of the local businesses and nearby residents, even though who can only access their homes from the High Street. It has understandably caused considerable distress and worry to those who would potentially be affected. I have since written to Cllr Bentley, as has John Baron MP, expressing our opposition to full pedestrianisation and I can reassure everyone that, even if the Leader of Basildon Council has not considered the problems and unintended consequences pedestrianisation could cause, Cllr Bentley has done and he has assured us that he “would never implement a strategy that would lead to a negative impact on the safety or prosperity of those in Billericay”.
I have asked officers to send me the slides that were used in tonight’s presentation and I will share these so that you can all see what was discussed [They have since done so – see link below] but, essentially, what is being proposed is to reduce the speed limit down the High Street to 20mph and make the footpaths one-directional. So the pavements will be northbound from the Library up towards the junction with Western Road/Norsey Road and then southbound down the other side heading past the Church back towards Sun Corner. The pedestrian crossings will all still remain in place, as will the bus stops. Obviously, with the traffic reduced to 20mph, it should also be possible to cross the road safely at various other points as well.
There is a particular ‘pinch point’ where the High Street meets Chapel Street, outside Barclays Bank and St Mary Magdalene Church. Officers are going to see how this goes and, if it proves to be a real problem, there is the option to ‘build out’ into the road and temporarily widen the footway (see link above for what this might look like). They are keen to keep the bus stops open, for those who rely on public transport. If vehicular access at that point does become an issue, then they could look at making the High Street one way between Sun Corner and the Church, as some have previously suggested.
To be clear, the full closure of the High Street is acknowledged to be a nuclear option and would be an absolute last resort. Notwithstanding the Leader’s misleading letter to Essex County Council, the officers were clear that they were keen to avoid having to do so at all costs and are confident that other measures will suffice.
The group have agreed to meet again in a week’s time to review how things are going.
There will be marshals to help assist as these new measures bed in and, ultimately, what everyone wants to see is our high street businesses re-opening to customers who can visit safely and start to return to normality. I will continue to work with officers, with my colleagues on all three local councils, with the businesses, to make sure we get this right.
What is being proposed is to reduce the speed limit down the High Street to 20mph and make the footpaths one-directional. So one side will be northbound and the other side southbound, with the pedestrian crossings still in place.
I would like to reiterate my thanks to all our amazing high street retailers and business, many of whom already have their social distancing measures in place and are ready to welcome back customers. We have some really lovely, community-spirited businesses in our high street and it will be great to be able to get back out there and start using them again.
As ever, if anyone has any questions or queries or if you are a business who did not receive an invite to the meeting, please feel free to get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.