Pedestrianisation – Fleet’s Very Own Marmite

by For Fleet's Sake
 

HART DISTRICT COUNCIL MEETING

Thursday evening saw another twist in the Fleet pedestrianisation saga as Hart District Council held a live streamed meeting that saw strongly worded views from those both for and against the current trial scheme.

There are many who have already chosen their side in this particular battle, regardless of facts, opinions or outcome and so, like the great marmite debate, it appears to come down to whether people love or hate the idea – and in some cases…nothing more. But unlike other contentious issues in Fleet, this argument has a large proportion of people who are undecided. Not people who don’t care, not people who don’t understand…just people who see both sides of an issue which is currently threatening to tear the people of Fleet apart.

There are valid points from both sides and it is hard to dispute arguments from those who feel they are either benefitting or losing out directly from the move to pedestrianise the High Street…after all, we have our views but not all of us can offer information from such a singular viewpoint. This is not a situation that will please everyone, so at the end of the day there will be people disappointed in the final choice to either keep or remove the current set up.

At the Hart District meeting of the 24th September 2020, the Hart Conservatives and Councillor Anne Crampton brought a motion to the council to stop the pedestrianisation trial, stating that it was clear that it had not been a success.

Below: Original motion proposed by Cllr Anne Crampton

The motion was subject to a rather long debate, with Councillor Richard Quarterman suggesting that it was perhaps worded a little too harshly and that the trial scheme, which is still in it’s infancy at four weeks old, needed longer to be assessed properly before any decisions were made. To that end, he offered a modified version of the motion:

Below: The modified version of the motion, proposed by Cllr Richard Quarterman, showing the marked changes.

As with the residents of Fleet, opinions raged strongly on both sides of the debate. Arguments against the scheme included a letter of objection, signed by Fleet shop owners, traffic issues and a petition against the scheme. Alternatively it was pointed out that the scheme had barely begun, that other shop owners stated that their profits had increased and that there were still upcoming changes that hadn’t yet had a chance to be implemented.

During the discussions, the Hart Conservatives spoke about data they had gathered from local residents with a leaflet drop in the local area. Their data showed that 81% of those that had contacted them, did not want the pedestrianisation.

Alternatively, Fleet BID shared a survey they carried out. According to their figures, this showed that 80% of people feel safer now the road is closed with 74% of people believing pedestrianisation to be a positive move.

Two different groups, two different results. Those opposing the Conservatives data say that there was a low proportion of people who replied to their campaign and that many didn’t receive a leaflet. Those opposing the BID data noted that the survey was done from people who were already shopping in Fleet and was on the same day as a Vegan market which had a good attendance. There have also been petitions from those who wish to stop pedestrianisation and those who wish to see the trial continued for a longer test period. It will be interesting to see any future data gathered on this subject, unfortunately it might just end up being a case of seeing only want you want to see, although there are far more than two sides to this coin.

Below: Campaign results from Hart Conservatives

Below: Survey results from Fleet BID

Despite the Hart Conservatives being unhappy with the amount of changes made to the original motion which, they felt, changed the entire point of it, the amendments were finally voted in with 10 votes against it and 14 votes for (with 1 abstention). The new motion will keep the High Street closed for now, with more time (although not much of it), for discussions with retailers and to get some independent data on traffic and the effects on local businesses. Whether this will change anyones minds either way or not remains to be seen though.

The debate wasn’t always an easy one with accusations flying and some frustrating interruptions in the live stream which cut out sections of the discussion. If you’d like to watch the whole meeting, it’s shown below for you, as yet again Hart District Council have removed it from their Facebook page before most people have had a chance to view it…and still appear to have no intention of setting up a website archive, like most other councils. Grab a big mug of tea (or possibly a big glass of wine) before you start though as it lasts around 2.5 hours…

Below: Hart District Council meeting on the 24th September 2020.

MERE MUSINGS?

So what are your views on the future of Fleet?

Of course that’s half the problem, an increasing number of people feel that Fleet doesn’t have a future, in a town that appears unpopular with many shoppers and that lacks big name shops, what is the appeal of popping up your local High Street?…and what can actually be done about it?

Let’s take a look at some of the common topics that are often brought up in this debate…

DISABLED ACCESS & FLEET ROAD PARKING

There has been concern by some who believe that the disabled and the elderly shoppers are greatly disadvantaged in the newly pedestrianised area. This indeed has some merit as it isn’t possible to stop outside certain shops to gain easy, unfettered access anymore, but that’s if you were able to get a space in the first place of course. To help with this, new disabled bays are already being added around the local area to replace the ones lost, so hopefully that will help the situation in the longer term. Only time will tell on that issue though, so watch this space.

Like many views, there are positives and negatives to parking on Fleet Road with parking bays sometimes taken up by staff who are late for work and need a quick stop off point, lorries who drop stuff off – blocking the road for everyone else – and those who park quickly (and badly), taking up far more space than they should. So like anything, just because it exists, doesn’t mean it is perfect. Just food for thought.

DROP OFF BAYS

Some local businesses have stated that they have lost early morning trade from tradespeople who would usually pop in and make quick purchases before work. Items such as newspapers, food and other essentials could previously be grabbed quickly while passing, instead of having to find an area that has space for a work van to park (the Hart Centre is no good for this with its height limitation), then parking, battling with paying with machines that only seem to half work and only then going to the desired shop…it’s easy to see why they would go elsewhere honestly.

With this in mind, could newly formed drop off points or 30 minute random parking bays be an option? These aren’t something that would take up a great deal of room but could provide a quick and easy option for those who just want to run in and out of a shop without hanging around. For the sake of 30 minutes these bays could surely be free parking, allowing those who need to, the chance to come and go without hassle and for businesses to welcome back their regular customers.

Are there any viable areas that bays like this could be slotted into the new landscape? Has this even been considered?

PARKING

Parking is a favourite topic to argue about in Fleet but with the current options on offer, it provides little to encourage visitors. The parking machines locally are, to be frank, a complete nightmare. Having to spend ages at machines that don’t work half the time, trying not to lose your temper as you punch the details in for the tenth time is enough to turn anyone away. The lack of any provision of sanitiser near the machines is also very off putting, especially as infections are on the increase once more.

So what about another car park? Sadly unlikely with land costs at a premium but if there was easier access to the centre of Fleet in the form of a larger parking area, there is little doubt it would help the flow of shoppers, especially if they didn’t have a long trek to their desired destination. With home deliveries looking more and more popular, if these areas also accommodated larger height vehicles (vans), would that not offer more options for businesses to increase their trade and even receive deliveries easier themselves? While developers sit on land in Fleet and the planning department is kept busy with applications to squeeze more and more flats in the town, how about putting something there that would benefit the whole town instead? I guess it depends on the priorities of those who make such decisions…but perhaps it could be a consideration.

TRAFFIC

Traffic management, diversions, bus routes altered, inconvenience, all these are points that come up over and over again in light of this topic. Back in the 1970’s Fleet actually began to plan for a bypass which would have allowed much easier pedestrianisation but they let the idea go – along with the land they had planned to build it on. If they had kept that land or built that bypass back then, things could have looked very different today, so is it too late to do something about it?

The original land has long gone but if original buildings can be knocked down for ugly eyesore hotels and if flats are allowed to be crammed into Fleet left right and centre, why can’t road management be changed too? Because it’s hard? Because it’s expensive? Because it’s more change and people are stuck in their ways? Or because it’s really impossible? There is plenty of change in Fleet that people don’t want – but it goes ahead anyway – so how about changing something to actually help the town? It may never happen but it has to be worth some serious and well thought out discussions at the very least…doesn’t it?

PARTIAL CLOSING

Some people are suggesting partial closing as a way to compromise on the High Street closure, with weekend and evenings being suggested as times that events could be held in the town, leaving it open at weekends. Could this be a solution? It would certainly give a nod to both sides of the debate although it’s unsure if it would be enough for either to agree to. There are also a few issues with this including the fact that any permanent additions to Fleet Road in the way of planters, seating areas etc would be missing from the area as it’s extremely unlikely they would be hauled in and out of storage during every closed period, leaving the area looking quite sparse and unappealing, a common complaint that is already being made. It is also likely to attract higher crowds to the town at the same time, making social distancing a concern and missing out a substantial section of the local population who actively choose not to visit shops at the weekend.

SHOPS

What’s the point of going all out to have people flocking to a town when there is very little to keep them there? We have some lovely shops in Fleet but honestly, it’s not enough. Like it or not, big name shops are an attraction to many and if people can’t get what they want in Fleet, they will go somewhere else – end of. So what are the real options about attracting bigger shops to Fleet? The trouble is, we don’t know. Despite the subject being discussed over and over again, it remains a subject that has far more questions than answers.

There is also the enigma of the Hart Centre, a shopping area reportedly owned by foreign investors who have seemingly little or no interest in the town, so why are we expected to just leave it there and accept it? Why cant we progress discussions with the owners on how to improve the centre, to update the units that have little appeal to those who are looking for more than a ten minute visit and why do all conversations regarding this topic fall dead with no one appearing to follow it up? Or is it true, as many believe, that the current owners are happy to run the centre down and then sell it off for more flats to be built? Unless we fight for the future of Fleet then all the events and footfall in the world won’t be enough to save it. Sad but true.

And what of the shops themselves? Is there anything they can do? In a time that has seen a huge increase in online shopping, it has to be accepted that things have changed – and that they won’t change back to exactly how they were before. There are those that can sit back and blame pedestrianisation, or say that COVID is to blame…all of which are valid arguments but is there a way to progress from that? Perhaps shops could consider new ways of trading themselves, with online outlets, click and collect and possibly local delivery to compete with the Amazon shoppers? If there was ever a time to think different it’s now – and those that do have the greater chance of survival. It is also noted that there have also been objections from businesses not in the pedestrianisation zone, stating they have lost business as people are flocking to the closed part of Fleet Road instead of their shops. While this is obviously a serious problem for those affected, does that not show that there is more incentive to visit the pedestrianised area, rather than the remainder of the town?

EVENTS

Whether you are a fan of the High Street closure or not and whether the idea of a Vegan Market or Crazy Golf appeals to you personally (or not), there is no disputing that they do bring a touch of life to Fleet, encouraging visitors which in turn benefits the surrounding shops and businesses. But those opposing the events have a point too when they point out that photographs of the High Street rammed with visitors isn’t exactly in line with the new social distancing rules, especially as the new road layout is meant to make that easier…not harder.

So clearly future events need to work on their organisation and possibly employ more staff to ensure the safety of those attending but these at least are problems that could be worked on and remedied, allowing people to enjoy Fleet and to do it safely. Maybe at the end of the day, it’s all about a bit of give and take and…compromise.

GURKHA SQUARE

The battle to save Gurkha Square in Fleet is well known with both Fleet Town Council and Hart District Council backing plans to develop the area and build over the only public square in Fleet. Since the passing of the Fleet Neighbourhood Plan, the council appears to have got the backdoor permission they sought to go ahead with this, despite overwhelming public objection and while keeping current discussions about plans for the area well under wraps. So what has this got to do with the High Street? Many now believe that the timing and insistence of the pedestrianisation has little to do with COVID and everything to do with backing up the plans to develop the area, with the thinking that if the High Street can be proven as an alternative location for markets and social events, Gurkha Square will be declared an area that is no longer needed…except for building on. This is entirely possible of course and with both councils refusing to allow any discussion of the upcoming plans in public, there is little faith that either FTC or HDC will listen to the people of Fleet.

ALL OR NOTHING?

So what does this scheme offer Fleet? Ignoring for a second the social distancing aspect in the hope that we will return to the ‘old normal’ at some point, it allows a space which can be used for holding events and placing attractions in. By its very nature this will draw people into the town and increase footfall, some of which, will benefit the shops around the area.

Think very carefully about refusing this scheme, towns have a tendency to adapt to change and Fleet might actually surprise you by doing just that and thriving…but by itself it still isn’t enough.

If the pedestrianisation gets cancelled then that will be that and the chance to change the face of the High Street, in that sense at least, will be gone for a very, very long time.

So what about the surveys, the new data that is required to see if this is deemed to be a success or not? With a possible second lockdown looming on the horizon and restrictions already being put in place, this is bound to have an affect on people’s confidence to even go to their local shops, possibly resulting in less visitors…but will this be put down to a failed pedestrianisation scheme? It would certainly suit those who don’t want the trial to continue any longer…but then what?

With a lack of big name shops, a tired shopping centre and no alternative plans to make Fleet into something more desirable, what chance does it stand? What are the other options that will make a real and defined difference to the town, enough to attract visitors and shoppers from not only Fleet but possibly further afar too? Or are we meant to go back to square one where regeneration of that end of town is a pipe dream?

Below: Some of the later phases of the High Street design start to replace the eyesore barriers.

DIVISION

The division Fleet is seeing on this subject is understandable to an extent – everyone is entitled to their own views after all. But the social bullying culture seen from both local councillors and local people is both disappointing and rather depressing.

There are many who have silently slipped away from social media or just sit back and watch the non-stop “discussions” on the pedestrianisation scheme in silence, scared to speak up and voice an opinion that goes against the current flow. There is simply no need for it. In a time where mental health issues are increasing on a daily basis, can we not agree to disagree with each other without resorting to personal insults and nasty accusations? Those that crave attention by mocking others openly simply prove themselves as small minded and petty bullies.

You don’t have to like the scheme, you don’t have to hate it and you don’t have to be 100% sure either way…but please take a few minutes and say what you have to say with careful thought and facts, not with anger, tearing apart those who you don’t agree with.  This is a tough year, let’s not make it harder, please.

THE WEEKEND

So here we are again, having gotten no closer to compromise or a final decision…and with many not holding out much hope for either anytime soon. This weekend sees a new independent survey being carried on in Fleet Road, as well as planned events including live music, crazy golf and entertainers. Will you be visiting?

Below: Hart District Council announces more surveys – this time from independent sources.

Below: Crazy golf in Fleet with an area of deck chairs…presumably to watch those participating or to listen to the live music?

Below: Video from Cllr Peter Wildsmith showing the crazy golf and entertainers in Fleet Road. 26th September 2020.

So it clearly this isn’t just a black and white issue with debate raging on both sides. Do you like the scheme and if so, why? Do you hate the scheme and again…why? Or do you just want to hang on and see what happens for a bit longer? Do you have alternate ideas for the regeneration of Fleet, or do you just want to sit back and complain about one side or the other and get nowhere? One thing’s for sure, Fleet needs ideas and discussions, not pointless arguments or deathly silence, whatever happens, let’s hope that can be remembered at least.

Have a good weekend Fleet x

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