Car-free high street in Gloucestershire turned into 'ghost town'

·4-min read
High Street, Thornbury
High Street, Thornbury

For nearly a century, very little has changed inside Riddiford’s grocers in the market town of Thornbury.

The shop, where shelves bow under the weight of jars of Cotswold honey and Gloucester cheeses, is so quintessentially English it is even said to have inspired the British sitcom Open All Hours.

But outside on the once thriving street a seismic change to the town centre is shattering the tranquility of the rural community nestling in the Severn Valley.

South Gloucestershire Council has been accused of acting “like a dictatorship” by closing the High Street to through traffic at a cost of £4 million despite the majority of residents opposing the scheme.

“It’s sheer madness,” said John Riddiford, whose grandfather bought the shop in 1929. “The town’s soul has gone. People used to pull up in their car to spend £20 and have a chat. Not any more.”

In June 2020, the council closed the street after Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, promised millions of pounds for his controversial green transport revolution, meant to promote social distancing, walking and cycling.

Petitions, protests and even security guards

Overnight four security guards living in two cabins - at a cost of more than £40,000 - moved in to bar motorists from access, as planters were used to block parking spaces and a cycle lane was introduced.

Petitions and protests (coffins were carried to represent their new “ghost town”) failed to sway Toby Savage, the council leader, who insisted the closure was in fact popular, but those in favour were reluctant to say so.

High Street, Thornbury - Lee Thomas
High Street, Thornbury - Lee Thomas

The council’s own consultation revealed 65 per cent of the 2,890 people who responded were opposed to pedestrianisation. Only 29 per cent approved.

So, council bosses agreed to open a one-way route only for buses, deliveries, collection and drop-offs, throwing in a few disabled parking spots. Through traffic remained banned.

Footfall has dried up causing business to go under

Zoe Gilbraith, the Chamber of Commerce secretary, said the majority of businesses still remained opposed, although some pubs that gained outdoor street seating saw sales increase and supported the scheme.

“For many, a 15 to 30 per cent drop in passing trade is the difference between survival and going under,” she said.

Timbercraft, a bathroom and kitchen store, is shutting its Thornbury shop after 13 years.

“Since the road closed, footfall and passing traffic dried up. We’ve seen a massive downturn in business,” said Paul Ruddick, the managing director, adding how that store used to “take more leads” than one of their biggest showrooms.

Christine Stone of Hawkins of Thornbury, a hardware shop, said trade had fallen because visitors “are no longer funnelled along the high street.”

Christine Stone, owner of Hawkins of Thornbury, stands outside her shop
Christine Stone, owner of Hawkins of Thornbury, stands outside her shop

Instead, motorists circumnavigate the shops along nearby Rock Street, where Ashley Smith, 51, lived until he suffered lung problems from long Covid and had to move because he felt pollution had increased from traffic congestion. “You can smell the fumes,” he said.

Last Wednesday, passions were running so high at a town meeting about the road that burly security guards were hired, an unusual precaution considering a quarter of the population is aged over 70.

It was hoped a parish poll the next day of 11,250 eligible voters would settle the issue once and for all, particularly after Mr Shapps repeatedly stressed that public consultation for such schemes was vital.

Of the 2,567 who voted, 1,852 residents (72 per cent) wanted the street restored to its pre-pandemic glory by being open to all cars. Only 707 (28 per cent) wanted it to remain closed.

High Street, Thornbury - Lee Thomas
High Street, Thornbury - Lee Thomas

A council spokesman insisted the authority believes in democratic processes and “continually listened to feedback” while working with traders. But, despite the poll they were going to pedestrianise the high street and keep the bus lane anyway. Mr Savage refused to be interviewed.

Chris Davies, the town mayor, is worried the issue has divided the community, in part because the council had “changed the meaning of the verb ‘to consult’.”

Clive Washbourne, the 81-year-old former local policeman who started the campaign against the closure, is now convinced “the council simply does as it pleases”.

“I have seen the town die before my very eyes,” he said. “But no one is listening.”

However, Christine Carter, a 76-year-old wheelchair user, feels the streets far easier to navigate without cars.

“The air quality has also improved,” she said. “This issue has divided the community in an unpleasant way.”

At the age of 100, John Mills cherishes his memories of when the high street was “the beating heart of Thornbury”.

Speaking after picking up his groceries from Riddiford’s, he said: “It was so vibrant, full of hustle and bustle. Now, nobody comes to the town centre, so the community is dying.”

Pointing his walking stick at one of the large black planters filled with only soil, he added: “Pedestrianisation makes towns look tatty.”

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