Fight for the High Streets: Are road closures aimed at helping businesses throwing a spanner in other people’s lives?

Pedestrianisation has been welcomed by local cafes and restaurants since the pandemic. But has this decision left residents and the elderly population feeling disadvantaged?

As restaurants prepare themselves for a busy evening ahead in Cotham Hill road in Bristol, workers and owners scurry around in tandem. They begin moving chairs and tables not only to the pavement, but also the road that is about to become an extension of the shops. 

Soon, the street starts crowding up. People make their way on foot, bikes, scooters and even wheelchairs, past the wooden planters that are plastered with bright signposts, making it clear that cars are not welcome there.

Benjamin Salguero, operations manager at the restaurant Rock Salt on Cotham Hill, has been astounded by the sharp recovery the businesses have made after the pandemic. “We had no idea that simply putting up barriers for cars and turning the road into parts of our businesses could have such a big impact,” he says as he hastily wipes the glass and cutlery before laying them down on the tables outside.

Cotham Hill Road in Bristol has two permanent road closures that do not allow cars to enter

One of the worst-hit sectors during the pandemic was food and beverages, losing more than £87 billion according to UKHospitality. However, local councils and the national government stepped in to enable businesses to continue trading in a socially distanced way out in the open air. 

“The lockdown was a miserable period for us, but it’s completely different now. This wasn’t the case two years ago,” says Benjamin, who runs the Indian and Chinese eatery and cocktail bar.

Without this, you just look like a dead business.

Sarah Lakin, owner of The Fossgate Social, York

Road closures have proved to be a beneficial move as it’s allowed cafes, restaurants and bars to set up outside seating, in lieu with a European-style ‘al fresco’ dining experience. In one year, over 16,000 such seatings have sprung up in the UK, with cities like Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and London claiming the economic dividends of getting people out of their cars.

Patrick Williams from the walking and cycling charity Sustrans believes that the economic benefit has always been there for the taking. “A lot of this has to do with perceptions,” he says. “Often among traders, there’s a perception that cars are fundamentally their bread and butter, that this is where all their clients come from when in fact it’s not the case, especially with local businesses.”

While the idea of increased business with decreased cars does seem a little baffling, studies show that this is generally the trend across the UK. A report by Sustrans found that less than a third of shoppers arrived by car in Bristol and Newcastle. According to the same report, pedestrianisation of York’s city centre increased some stores’ turnover by 30%.

Many councils across the country have tried to help businesses since the pandemic by allowing outside seating, like the Mare Street in Hackney, London

Such findings are not unique to Sustrans; studies from Transport for London and Living Streets have found similar results,. “While car drivers tend to spend more on one individual trip, cyclists, pedestrians and wheelers tend to visit more frequently and spend more over the course of say, a week or a month,” says Patrick.

The impact of going car-free isn’t just limited to a monetary level. Neve Marinou, a resident of Cotham Hill says that more people being able to roam freely without worrying about traffic has led to a robust growth of the local community as well.

“This area of Bristol has become a go-to destination with pedestrianisation,” she says. “There’s more varieties of people coming here to hang out. It’s busy right from the morning to past the end of daylight. People really enjoy sitting outside to eat and drink, especially in the summer.”

Improving walking and cycling environment can increase retail turnover by 25%, according to Living Streets

Recent events like the Cotham Hill Street Party and the Pride March, both of which saw hundreds of people turn up at the street, have solidified the cultural shift that’s happened since the road became pedestrianised. However, unlike Neve, a lot of residents are not happy with what they’re witnessing.

Clare Hurst, who runs Jon Hurst Hairdressing on Cotham Hill road says that while the scheme has been great for her shop, she has heard residents complain about unruly and inconsiderate behaviour, especially due to the large student population around the corner.

“It’s always a battle with the residents. They don’t like when students are partying late at night or maybe even just going back to their houses,” she says. “People here feel that having pedestrianisation outside eating or drinking places would bring more youngsters to the road and increase the noise levels.”

Cotham Hill Road, situated next to University of Bristol, sees a lot of students and young professionals come to eat and drink

When a similar measure was implemented on the outskirts of Bristol in Thornbury’s High Street, it was met with a number of demonstrations, with residents claiming that this was ‘killing the town’. In the Wandsworth borough of London, forty people signed a letter to the council opposing the pedestrianisation of the Putney High Street, raising concerns of anti-social behaviour as well as not offering equal access to everyone.

The city centre of York is one such place where battle lines have been drawn on the pavements. During the pandemic, the York Council extended the car-free hours in the city centre till 7PM, meaning people could be seated outside cafes and restaurants for two more hours. However in July, the council decided to revert back to the earlier end time of 5PM, drawing much criticism from local businesses.

Andrew Digwood, vice president of the York Chamber of Commerce, claimed that this would jeopardise trade and have a ‘disproportionately detrimental effect on the affected businesses’ in the crucial early evening period. Sarah Lakin, owner of The Fossgate Social cafe said that her cafe relies on customers being able to dine outside. “Without this, you just look like a dead business,” she said.

The Fossgate Social Cafe is located on the Fossgate Street in York, which was pedestrianised in 2020 (Photo: Carl Spencer)

The council’s decision came after pressure from a campaign against the pavement cafe-culture brewing in York that’s making the city centre inaccessible to the elderly and the disabled. Visually impaired residents Glynis and Jade told BBC that their needs were not considered before letting chairs and tables out on the pavements. Last year, the council also voted to ban disabled parking in pedestrianised areas, angering even more people who said that they were being made to feel like ‘second-class’ citizens.

Richard Whittaker, who runs the St Sampson’s Centre for Over 60s, a charity cafe and community hub for the elderly, says that they’re now seeing about 100-200 fewer people every day due to accessibility issues and lack of parking spaces. 

“A majority of our customers have a blue badge, because of some sort of mobility issue, or because they’re partially sighted or blind,” he says. “It’s had a major knock-on effect on us. I’m getting contacted half a dozen times a week by people asking if there are now spaces where they can park. It’s been months but I still cannot give them an answer.”

A coalition of 24 groups, including St Sampson’s Centre, is campaigning to overturn the blue-badge parking ban in York

Although there are a couple of parking spaces on the edges of the city centre, Richard says that people still have to walk about half a mile to get to St Sampson’s, and it’s difficult for a lot of their customers to navigate their way with the tables and chairs obstructing the pavements. “There wasn’t any need for extra seating before Covid, and there’s no need for it now. Any businesses digging their heels in the ground now are doing it because of greed,” he says.

According to Richard, York emerged as a tourism hotspot during the pandemic, and the council and the local businesses saw it as an opportunity to capitalise on the increased footfall in the city centre. “York is a historic town, but now it’s just overrun by tourists. If you were to come in on a Saturday, it’s like a festival every week,” he says. “It’s crazy how busy it gets.”

Richard feels that businessmen and tourists are the ones getting the considerations over residents, especially those with disabilities. “A lot of the businesses would say ‘It’s not causing anybody harm, why should we stop?’ I think we need to look at it from a welfare point of view and serve the needs of everybody in the society,” he says. “The council is just thinking about how to cram as many people in the city centre as possible. They just want more money.”

But the fight is not just between residents and store owners. Some local businesses are also unhappy with the way councils have gone about closing the roads to vehicles. Oren Adani, owner of Falafel King on Cotham Hill Road in Bristol, says that although the Bristol Council waved off the charges for outside seating during the pandemic, they have kept on levying new taxes since the past year.

“Now that the pandemic is over, they’re hitting us with a new charge every few months,” he says. “They’re giving us extra costs for tables and chairs, decking, roof, another extra cost for serving alcohol outside. So basically they’re saying ‘we want to help you’, but at the same time throwing so many extra costs at us that it’s almost not worth it.”

Oren feels as if the council closed Cotham Hill Road and then left the stores to fend for themselves, without putting in much effort. One of his major concerns is getting deliveries and stocks. “They have taken away our loading bays and any additional parking,” he says. “They haven’t put in any investment. All they’ve done is put up a big red ‘Road Closed’ sign and then left us to our own devices.”

While getting stocks delivered is an issue that other businesses are also facing, most of them are still in overwhelming support of the road becoming pedestrianised. In Feburary, the Bristol City Council ran a survey in which 90 percent of the 1500-plus respondents voted to keep the roads closed. Soon, it was announced that Cotham Hill Road would become permanently pedestrianised.

As the sun sets and the fancy lightings start beaming on the distinct seating areas outside each store, Cotham Hill Road starts to look more like a Soho-esque neighbourhood than a street next to an affluent residential locality. Young and old people drink and dine together, with more customers queueing outside restaurants for a seat. Benjamin Salguero, who’s just finished setting up the tables outside, says, “It’s a vibrant environment. For me, this whole scheme has definitely been worth it, and I wouldn’t want anything else.”