City centre road closures: is permanent pedestrianisation a possibility?

Road closures were introduced in St Albans city centre at the end of the first lockdown to promote social distancing.

Road closures were introduced in St Albans city centre at the end of the first lockdown to promote social distancing. - Credit: Archant

City centre road closures introduced to promote social distancing proved divisive when they were brought into force last year, but now it seems the majority are in favour of permanent pedestrianisation.

High Street, George Street and Market Place in St Albans have remained shut to traffic since the first lockdown restrictions were eased in May, after Herts county council brought in the measures to prevent crowded pavements in the vicinity.

The closures provoked a backlash from local retailers.

Mike Skinner, who owns Masters in Light, said the closures were having a negative effect on his business, and predicted last June that they were the first steps towards permanent pedestrianisation.

Like many other nearby shop owners nearby, he says deliveries were a major problem.

Deryane Tadd, of The Dressing Room in High Street, said local businesses were not adequately consulted about the plans.

After initial complaints about a lack of proper signage and accessibility issues, improvements were made, including the introduction of wooden barriers filled with flowers to brighten up the area.

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County councillor Sandy Walkington told the Herts Ad: "'After some initial hiccups, the initial feedback from this forced experiment is hugely encouraging. There is a tremendous opportunity here.

"But all the stakeholders - including the Cathedral, St Albans School and residents and businesses impacted by displaced traffic - must feel comfortable that they have been heard.’"

Local organisations like St Albans Civic Society, and neighbourhood groups Abbey Precincts Residents' Association and Fishpool Street Residents' Association have surveyed their members about the closures to find out whether they wanted them to become permanent.

In 89 responses received from APRA members, the most popular option was for George Street to remain pedestrianised, and High Street to be closed to all but designated traffic, including buses, taxis and delivery vehicles at specified times.

Meanwhile, FSRA received 81 responses to its survey, which proposed a combined approach to the issue of city centre traffic management, and saw overwhelmingly positive support for measures including George Street and Market Place remaining as permanent pedestrian areas, with direct vehicle access for deliveries restricted to specific off-peak times.

It also called for a new loading bay and drop-off area at the junction of Verulam Road and High Street to be used for pupils of St Albans School and delivery drivers, controlled access to High Street for licensed vehicles at certain times of the day, making the central section of Fishpool Street one way east to west to avoid it being used as a rat run, and a robustly enforced 20mph speed limit through the city centre.

Sarah Gillow, co-vice chair of St Albans BID and owner of Galio jewellers, said: "We are very excited about the overall positive feedback for the permanent closure of George Street, and also how HCC have managed to facilitate the access needs of some of the businesses.

"There has been a call for creating a Cathedral Quarter for some time, the pedestrianisation is a step towards that, it has made the area feel more of a community. It has united the neighbourhood and created an amazing atmosphere with greater footfall - all be it socially distant.

"George Street is a hub for independent businesses heavily hit in this pandemic. By creating a unique and buzzy atmosphere, safe from cars and traffic the businesses will be able to trade inside and outside safely which will no doubt help future proof their development."

Cllr Mandy McNeil, portfolio holder for business, tourism and culture on St Albans district council, has been working on the next steps: "HCC has agreed that once we are through the Covid crisis, they will work with the county councillors, the BID and myself to bring together a stakeholder group with representatives to find a way to move forward that will hopefully work for everyone.

"I think that it’s fair to say we all think the support for the permanent pedestrianisation of George Street is very positive and working in partnership we hope for a practical, viable, pedestrianisation plan for our city centre that balances the needs of all stakeholders with the need to be more climate, pedestrian and cyclist friendly, and helps draw more visitor footfall to our city."

But not everyone likes the closures. A petition by George Street antique dealers LA James calling on the county council to reverse the scheme has more than 400 signatures. Sign it here: