The closure of Barnstaple’s Longbridge to traffic looks set to go ahead as soon as possible after councils stuck to their guns, saying it was necessary to ensure social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Following emergency government funding to ‘improve social distancing for walkers and cyclists’, Devon County Council has confirmed it intends to push ahead with plans to temporarily close the bridge to all motor traffic except buses and emergency vehicles.
The council said it had agreed to support the closure at the request of North Devon Council and North Devon MP Selaine Saxby.
It said the initial closure would be for a temporary trial of three months.
They fear it will cause huge traffic congestion in the town centre and around Barnstaple, as many motorists will be forced to use the Taw Bridge and smaller road such as Rolle Street and Newport.
An online poll run by the Gazette and so far completed by 758 people has seen almost 80 per cent of those against the plans, with 591 against and 167 in favour.
The £338,000 from government will also be used on trial schemes in Exeter and newton Abbot, while it is proposed to introduce a one-way system for pedestrians in Bideford.
In Barnstaple, it is also proposed to bring in other temporary measures in the town including the extension of the current town centre pedestrianised area, which will support social distancing and improve cycling links into the town centre.
Additional pop-up cycling parking facilities are also being introduced.
Councillor Stuart Huges, DCC member for highways management, said the temporary changes were about making it safe for people to move around more as lockdown restrictions ease, businesses reopen, people return to their workplaces and more children go back to school
He said: ““It’s vital that we continue to follow government guidance to help stop the spread of coronavirus, and this includes social distancing and we need to do everything we can to make that easy for people.
“We’ve agreed to support the MP and North Devon Council’s preference to introduce a temporary restriction to remove traffic, except for buses, cycles and emergency vehicles on the A3125 Longbridge.
“We’ll closely monitor the impact of these temporary measures and assess how well they are working.”
Ken Miles, chief executive of North Devon Council, said DCC officers liaised with NDC officers over proposals, which included a series of options for the Longbridge, one of which was for pedestrianisation.
He said: “The district council, as consultee, indicated that it was supportive of the proposals.
“These proposals are temporary and intended to protect and support the High Street. Many people have commented that they don’t want things to go back to the old normal and have taken advantage of the opportunity presented by lower traffic levels to walk and cycle more.
“Whilst traffic levels are now higher than in just recent weeks, they are still lower than pre-lockdown levels and so now is an ideal time to explore options.
“There are obviously real concerns about the impact of the main proposal for the Longbridge and to reflect that the district council has asked that when the proposals are implemented, monitoring takes place so that steps can be taken if they are clearly not working or are causing significant issues.”
On Friday, Selaine Saxby MP publicly welcomed the plans, saying: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to encourage people out of their cars for a temporary period and see if a scheme like this could work in Barnstaple, whilst so many continue to work from home.
“Cyclists and pedestrians need space and protecting to ensure social distancing, and while an alternative solution may be to make pedestrians go one way on each side of the bridge, I do not think that this will go far enough.”
The Gazette has asked Ms Saxby if she wishes to comment on the proposals and the amount of anger they appear to have generated.