North Devon’s MP has responded in detail to the furore over her support of plans to temporarily close Barnstaple Longbridge to traffic and says constituents are being listened to.

Selaine Saxby has issued a detailed statement to explain her stance on the bid to close the bridge to all motor traffic apart from buses and emergency vehicles to ensure social distancing for pedestrians and cyclists during the pandemic.

Devon County Council (DCC) has received £338,000 from the government’s emergency active travel fund, which will be spent in Barnstaple, Bideford, Exeter and Newton Abbot to make it safer for walkers and cyclists.

Proposals drawn up by DCC which included the closing of the bridge have been supported by North Devon Council and Ms Saxby.

There has been furious opposition since she stated her support in a Facebook post a week ago and an online petition opposing the plans now has more than 3,700 signatures.

In a statement issued today (Thursday, June 18) Ms Saxby said she had initially suggested a 10am to 5pm closure similar to Cross Street and Butchers Row, but highways officers said this would be impossible to enforce and she said it had to be ‘all or nothing’.

Ms Saxby is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling and Walking and last week described the plans as ‘progressive’.

She said: “There are several versions of proposals that Devon Highways are looking at, but they do not have time for a full consultation, hence my Facebook post that received so many responses.

“You are being listened to but not in the usual pre-pack bureaucratic way which would not see any results for six months.

“It is not my role as MP to decide local highways policy, but to represent the people of North Devon, and your views have been fed back to the Devon County Council Highways.

“I would like to stress that these measures, if they go ahead, should be very temporary and be swiftly withdrawn if traffic levels start to return to pre-corona levels.

“However, I am gravely concerned at the lack of safe walking and cycling into Barnstaple, at a time when more people want to travel this way and I have urged the council to expedite the repairs on the Iron Bridge in Rock Park.

“I am worried at the inevitable increased pollution as more and more people have to use cars to enter the town whilst people are reluctant to use our buses.”

She added: “We need to ensure those that have no other means of transport to Barnstaple can use the buses without them becoming overcrowded. And for that to happen we need people to use active travel where they are able, rather than cars.

“I do appreciate that some car traffic will be diverted to other parts of Barnstaple but we are currently only running at 60 per cent the normal traffic and it will be some time before we reach what we would normally see.

“Throughout the pandemic food bank usage here in North Devon has doubled, we have more than double the number people on benefits, and the Government have been paying the wages of 12,100 people through the furlough scheme, and supported a further 5,200 with the self-employed income support scheme.

“As these people look to return to working from offices and shops not just home, one in four have considered cycling to work for the first time.

“Many more jobs are likely to be lost locally, despite all our best efforts, as our vital tourism and hospitality sectors remain closed, and unlikely to open in full for some time.

“Without income, many in our community cannot afford the luxury of a car, so walking and cycling will become more viable and more common.”

Selaine Saxby’s statement in full

There has been much debate this week about plans to expand capacity in Barnstaple for pedestrians and cyclists as we try to move to the new, post-Covid normal.

On May 9th, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a £250M emergency active travel fund to create pop-up bike lanes with protected space for cycling, wider pavements, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors.

The funding is the first stage of a £2bn investment from a £5bn commitment in new funding for cycling and buses announced in February.

Shapps said: “During this crisis, millions of people have discovered cycling - whether for exercise or as a means of safe, socially-distanced transport. When the country does get back to work we need those people to stay on their bikes and be joined by many more.

“Otherwise, with public transport’s capacity severely restricted at this time, our trains and buses could become overcrowded and our roads gridlocked – holding up emergency services, critical workers and vital supplies.

“We know cars will continue to remain vital for many, but as we look to the future we must build a better country with greener travel habits, cleaner air and healthier communities.”

Devon County Council have been awarded a chunk of this funding and have made a number of proposals to the roads in Barnstaple to make it safer for people to walk and cycle into and around the town. County Councillors had reservations about the proposals, particularly the plan to significantly reduce traffic on the Longbridge. Initially North Devon Council were supportive of these measures as was Barnstaple Town Council, though we have yet to see the full details. As MP I have tried throughout the pandemic, to work in a cross-party manner and be supportive of particularly our District Council who have had to carry such a burden through the pandemic.

All the measures introduced will be temporary. We need to ensure those that have no other means of transport to Barnstaple can use the buses without them becoming overcrowded. And for that to happen we need people to use active travel where they are able, rather than cars. I do appreciate that some car traffic will be diverted to other parts of Barnstaple but we are currently only running at 60% the normal traffic and it will be some time before we reach what we would normally see.

Throughout the pandemic food bank usage here in North Devon has doubled, we have more than double the number people on benefits, and the Government have been paying the wages of 12,100 people through the furlough scheme, and supported a further 5,200 with the self-employed income support scheme. As these people look to return to working from offices and shops not just home, one in four have considered cycling to work for the first time.

Many more jobs are likely to be lost locally, despite all our best efforts, as our vital tourism and hospitality sectors remain closed, and unlikely to open in full for some time. Without income, many in our community cannot afford the luxury of a car, so walking and cycling will become more viable and more common.

Despite having called a climate emergency there are many councillors who do not seem willing to take on this opportunity even now, while traffic volumes are down. It is the only chance we will ever get to trial an ambitious scheme like this. There are several versions of proposals that Devon Highways are looking at but they do not have time for a full consultation, hence my Facebook post that received so many responses. You are being listened to but not in the usual pre-pack bureaucratic way which would not see any results for six months.

Councils and business groups want to do something, but nobody can agree what and the window of opportunity is short. Sadly, this has happened before and is part of the reason why we lose out on funding, like the money that had been previously earmarked for a new cycling and pedestrian bridge.

I have suggested restricting the closure to 10am-5pm to all traffic except for buses and emergency vehicles which would align with the closures of Butchers Row and Cross Street. This alongside other partial closure schemes proposed have been dismissed as Devon Highways will be unable to enforce. I do genuinely understand and agree with their concerns, but it does mean that it is either all or nothing.

It is not my role as MP to decide local highways policy, but to represent the people of North Devon, and your views have been fed back to the Devon County Council Highways. I would like to stress that these measures, if they go ahead, should be very temporary and be swiftly withdrawn if traffic levels start to return to pre-corona levels.

However, I am gravely concerned at the lack of safe walking and cycling into Barnstaple, at a time when more people want to travel this way and I have urged the council to expedite the repairs on the Iron Bridge in Rock Park. I am worried at the inevitable increased pollution as more and more people have to use cars to enter the town whilst people are reluctant to use our buses. I would like to see us benefit from government funding that is offered to us, and a temporary trial of innovative solutions. This could enable us to reconsider our relationship with our cars and the environment longer term, but mostly in the short term, support those who need help the most in getting back into Barnstaple.