High street benches and bike stands will be replaced after 'unintended controversy'
- Credit: Paul Sear
New benches and bike racks in Stevenage Old Town will be replaced after causing "unintended controversy" within the business community and beyond.
Parking bays in the High Street have been forfeited in favour of public seating areas - including a permanent fixture outside Costa Coffee and a temporary one on the stretch outside Wetherspoon. Parking was also lost to three bike stands in 2020.
Misya Meze & Grill has now submitted a planning application to Stevenage Borough Council to turn the parking bays outside the restaurant into a seating area, and the council says two more restaurants have plans to follow suit - with temporary barriers at first and a potential planning application later.
The reduction in parking is giving rise to concern it will have a detrimental impact on trade once businesses reopen, and there is also concern the aesthetics of the benches and bike stands are not in keeping with the historic High Street.
Following an online Comet story about the controversy, the council says it will replace the bike racks and benches using part of the £77,818 allocated to SBC from the government's Welcome Back Fund, which aims to support retail and leisure industries as they reopen.
Council leader Sharon Taylor said: "At our Covid Emergency Committee [on Friday] we discussed the fact the bike racks and benches we had placed in the High Street had caused unintended controversy - we get that you don’t like them - so we will use some of this money to replace them with more popular designs. Our officers will shortly be consulting with businesses and residents on alternative options.
"The benches and bike racks that are there now won’t go to waste. We’ll find new homes for them, where hopefully they will feel more loved."
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The move, however, does not address concerns that the reduction in parking will adversely affect trade in the High Street.
Sarah Deamer, of J Deamer & Son, said: "We have had a business in the Old Town for 87 years and it is becoming impossible for our customers to park. They go round and round the High Street and eventually give up and go somewhere else. Losing more parking would be a disaster for the small businesses."
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Neil Bates, of Mortgage Hunters, said: "Customer flow is the life blood of the Old Town, but this will further reduce the ability for customers to visit."
Marie Etienne, of Andre Etienne Carpet and Floorcovering, added: "Should the council continue along this path, there will not be any businesses left for people to come to."
Paul Sear, a member of Stevenage Old Town Business and Community Partnership, explained: "The daytime economy relies on the convenience of the free car parking spaces in front of their shops. There are a large number of elderly and disabled people who rely on this too."
The council says surveys show the High Street parking spaces are not fully used during the day, and there is consistently capacity in the car parks - including pre-pandemic.
A spokesman said: "The council plans to actively support businesses reopening safely, with training, support and promotions. After the summer, the council will formally engage with businesses and residents to see what is working well and what can be improved as we further emerge from the pandemic."
To support outdoor hospitality during the pandemic, the council last year provided greater freedom for businesses to use their land more flexibly without planning permission, including setting up marquees in pub gardens.
Councillor Taylor said: "We now intend to legislate to allow businesses such as pubs, restaurants and cafes to use the right for the whole of summer and widen the scope to cover land within the curtilage of listed buildings. These measures will enable businesses to serve more customers safely once they are allowed to reopen and support them to recover from the effects of the pandemic.
"The flexibilities are designed to ensure a simple, fast and inexpensive process. I would strongly encourage you to respond to new requests in this spirit."
Up to three hours free parking in the former Waitrose car park has been extended until September.