'Heartbreak' as diggers 'destroy' South West high street with 'catastrophic' consequences

The first phase of the transformative construction work on a South West town centre has already resulted in 'catastrophic' repercussions for businesses, they claim. Only weeks into the 'Queen Street Enhancement Scheme' in Newton Abbot in Devon, shops and cafes have reported a slump in takings by no less than 20 per cent while footfall seems to have 'markedly' declined

Work is still set to carry on until it reaches completion in November. But local community members have voiced fears regarding the imminent two-month closure of Queen Street, a crucial road in the area - extending from August 12 till October 11.

A video that showss the testing day-to-day impact of the ongoing works has been shared by local resident Rachel Mowlem. Taken from within the Orsino Lounge located on Queen Street, the footage, captured during Tuesday lunchtime of June 25, reveals the 'appalling' noise that businesses and customers must bear from the roadworks outside as reports Devon Live.

According to Rachel: "On what was the hottest day of the year in Devon, doors and windows remained closed. Staff tell me there has been a big downturn in customers since the work commenced. The noise was horrendous."

Sign warning people of trip hazard in Queen Street Newton Abbot
Sign warning people of trip hazard in Queen Street Newton Abbot -Credit:DevonLive

Now there has been another issue. Work to make it 'safer and healthier' for pedestrians in Newton Abbot town centre has been slammed - because people keep tripping and falling over - as a newly-laid raised section of pavement outside Poundland has been labelled a 'trip hazard'.

It comes after customers and staff from shops were seen helping an elderly woman who fell over on Saturday. DevonLive has been told that as many as six people may have tripped and fallen over in the same spot.

South Western Ambulance Service has also confirmed that it was aware of an elderly person taking themselves to hospital after a fall on Sunday at 3pm.

The Queen Street project, financed by the government, will work towards widening sidewalks, altering traffic flows, introducing better pedestrian crossings, increasing seating options and boosting facilities for buses and cyclists.

The plans for traffic in the area also include imposing a 20mph speed limit, new waiting, loading and parking restrictions and closing numerous roads apart from through traffic. The modifications affect Queen Street's stretch between Courtenay Street and The Avenue, as well as numerous surrounding junctions and ancillary streets.

David Austin, the owner of Austins Department Store on Courtenay Street, is among the many business owners who have witnessed a decline in revenue since the implementation of the scheme commenced.

He said: "We can confirm that we have been experiencing lower footfall in recent weeks since the start of the roadworks, due to extensive disruption to the town. Our concerns continue with the gas pipe works due to start on Wolborough St and East St, and with the detrimental effect of the Queen Street works on the trading community and on shoppers for the whole of Newton Abbot town centre".

David Austin outside Austins in Newton Abbot
Dug up pavements in Queen Street Newton Abbot as part of the town centre improvement works

Another independent venture suffering from this is Phoenix Sounds located on Queen Street, which has seen a 'significant' decrease in customer visits.

According to the owner, Roger Cox: "We were against this proposal from the start as Queen Street is a thriving shopping street which didn't need any changes and we also knew it would impact our independent business. The nine staff we employ across the two businesses (Phoenix Sounds and MMC Ltd) that share the one space are, and have been, apprehensive about their future and job security since the proposals were made."

"Since the works started, we have remained open, but we had to keep the physical doors to our record store closed trying to keep out the noise and dust. There has been a significant drop in footfall since the work began which has affected the sales."

"We decided we must take a very positive stance to ensure we kept our customers since they started drilling by arranging a meeting with Teignbridge District Council (TDC) on how they can help the businesses. The meeting was very positive, and we came out thinking that there was hope."

"But three weeks on from the meeting, the promises of signage at every pedestrian entrance to the town and car parks by the end of the week have not materialised. These boards were supposed to show how it would look and to promote the fact we were all still open for business."

"We were disappointed that they were not displayed at the start of the work as most towns have information boards informing the public of what is taking place."

The Queen Street Traders And Residents Association have described the works as having created 'chaos' and 'heartbreaking' due to the impact on businesses and shoppers.

In a statement, the group expressed: "Despite very strong ongoing opposition around the Queen Street Development, not only from local businesses but also from a high percentage of the resident population, TDC and Devon County Council decided to ahead with the plan regardless, rather than engage with people as we repeatedly requested, to come up with a revised plan to better suit the town's wants and needs."

"The result is that unfortunately as we predicted, the chaos in Queen Street is already having a huge negative impact on businesses and people visiting the town. Disabled drivers are already struggling with the reduction in on street parking, shopkeepers are struggling with the dust the roadworks are producing and everyone is suffering from the noise of the street being dug up."

"It is absolutely heartbreaking that healthy and successful businesses are being made to suffer this and that our beloved Queen Street is being dug up against the clearly stated wishes of the people. Queen Street will go from being a vibrant, busy street full of successful business and pop and shop customers, to a street with wide pavements and empty shops giving people no reason to visit the town if there is nothing left for them to visit."

"Reports from shopkeepers show that Nature's Bounty are suffering from around two-thirds lost in income which is quickly becoming unsustainable. Shaldon Bakery and Percy's Fabrics have reported a 20 per cent decrease in sales. Jacksons Fishmongers is 10 per cent down and many others, both small independents and nationals, have noticed a drop in trade."

"Two charity shops have indicated they will be closing, together with another business that has already decided to move to ensure their survival. The final nail in the coffin which has left businesses speechless, will be the extreme measure of a two-month temporary prohibition of through traffic, parking, waiting and loading/unloading in Queen Street, Albany Street, Victoria Place as work continues."

"With the current loading bays often blocked off and no leniency shown towards businesses who are left with no option but unload their supplies on the side of the street and then be issued with a parking ticket. They might have started to destroy our street, but we haven't given up yet. We have taken legal advice and will continue our fight against it."

Carmen Hanif, development manager (Devon) for the Federation of Small Businesses added: "The Federation of Small Businesses spoke out against the pedestrianisation of Queen Street following concerns raised by local businesses. Aside from the long-term negative impact, we were extremely concerned about the drop in footfall while work was taking place."

"Businesses are still affected by the cost of living crisis and the cost of doing business, and we advise local authorities and decision makers to listen and act on the advice of traders and business owners who are at the heart of the community, and employ local people."

"It is very worrying to hear that businesses are already suffering from a fall in footfall due to the work taking place. It is important that these concerns are addressed, and we hope to hear what action is being taken to support local businesses during this time."

Sally Henley, Newton Abbot town development manager, has also voiced criticisms of the scheme and its implementation. She is urging people to continue visiting the town and patronising its shops.

She stated: "It is well documented that Newton Abbot Town Council (NATC) does not support what is going on in the town centre. It is therefore very upsetting for me as an officer of NATC to see the detrimental effect of these, as the town council sees it, unwanted and unwarranted works."

"As with any traffic management engineering scheme, this one has come with a great deal of noise, dust and disruption. The inconvenience to businesses as well as to shoppers is clear."

How Queen Street in Newton Abbot could look
-Credit:Colleen Smith

"Very little thought seems to have been given to the timing of the implementation of this scheme, given the massive, and absolutely essential, utility works which are being undertaken by Wales and West all around the town. The combination of these works has had a devastating effect upon some independent businesses and it has been heartbreaking to listen to business owners talking about giving leases back, letting staff go, closing early, opening fewer days and cleaning out their personal savings."

"Some business owners fear they may not be here when the last jackhammer has left the town. Communication has been poor, with works scheduled to take place in October, having been started in tandem with current works."

"Parking spaces seem to have been lost, which were not identified in the original plan. Interpretation boards, which should have been in place to tell the public about what is being delivered and why, only materialised this week and far from giving details, they simply show the artist impression of one section of the street and direct you to a website."

"Given the local opposition, this seems a missed opportunity to dispel some of the myths about the scheme. The Queen Street newsletter could have been an opportunity to keep everyone up to date, but even this mechanism seems to have failed in this regard."

"Queen Street nonetheless is home to some fantastic businesses. What is more, there is still plenty of parking nearby. The workmen are doing their best to keep disruption to a minimum whilst keeping everyone safe."

"I do hope that shoppers will continue to support these businesses at a time when their custom is most valued."

Devon County Council has stated the scheme will be carried out in seven phases, broadly starting at Queen Street's western end (Courtenay Street) and finishing at its eastern end (The Avenue). Businesses will remain open as usual during the works.

In the meantime, a legal battle has been launched, with solicitors saying there were flaws in the way the council carried out its consultations.

Devon County Council and Teignbridge District Council say the proposals will cut traffic and pollution and boost businesses in the long term.

Earlier this year, Teignbridge District Council Leader Martin Wrigley, who is in charge of the Future High Streets Fund delivery, stated: "These proposals will make Newton Abbot town centre a much better place to visit, as well as making it a safer and healthier place for residents. People's shopping habits have changed, and many don't go into towns just to shop. Covid has further changed habits as well. We need to make sure Queen Street is an attractive and viable place for people to spend time, as well as using the shops and other services. Whether they browse, walk or cycle, meet and eat, or enjoy a cultural experience Newton Abbot will be truly back on the map."

"We'll continue to work with traders and businesses in the area to transition to the new vibrant, safe and attractive town centre that will appeal equally to residents and visitors to the town, and to highlight the many benefits of supporting the local economy."

Queen Street construction phases
Dug up pavements in Queen Street Newton Abbot as part of the town centre improvement works

Cllr Stuart Hughes, Cabinet Member for Highway Management, commented: "We want town centres to be safer and healthier for people to walk around and enjoy, and this scheme will create a much-enhanced environment in this part of Newton Abbot town centre. Reducing the amount of through traffic will improve air quality and by providing more space and better crossing areas, shoppers will be able to make the most of the businesses and facilities in Queen Street."

Cllr Phil Bullivant, County Councillor for Newton Abbot North, expressed: "The overwhelming view amongst residents, planners, most councillors and those with a keen interest in the successful future of Newton Abbot believe that improving the town centre environment to attract more people is vital for the future prosperity of the town, including its retail businesses."

He further added: "These plans are designed to deliver solutions that have been demonstrated to work in similar towns. We must show our commitment to the town and support actions designed to deliver the outcomes most want to see, a vibrant forward-looking Newton Abbot that will be the leading market town in Teignbridge and ultimately in Devon."