It's traffic hell in Devon seaside resort but there's hope

The new plaza-style harbourside public realm in Torquay is the 'biggest transformation project the town has seen for decades', according to Torbay Council. When it is finished there will be more room for pedestrians to stroll around the bustling, sun-drenched marina, sample the many bars, restaurants and shops along the Strand, Torwood Street, Victoria Parade and Cary Parade and maybe gamble a few pennies in the amusement arcades.

It will help the economy and rid the area of unsightly buses crowding the pavement and puffing fumes into doorways. There'll be less traffic and you'll even be able to walk around the Mallock Memorial Clock Tower that currently sits stranded on a busy road junction.

The transformation doesn't stop there. The empty Debenhams store will be torn down and replaced - whatever rises in its place will fit with the new pedestrian-friendly aesthetic of the harbourside.

But at the moment it is traffic hell. For the past six months or so the area around the Strand has been a bumper-to-bumper zone of roadworks, diversion signs, four-way traffic lights, delays, more diversion signs, workmen, noise, machines and frustration.

Torquay harbourside roadworks
Torquay harbourside roadworks -Credit:DevonLive

The biggest challenge for traders on the harbourside is believing in the council-backed vision for its future.

Businesses on Torquay harbourside have, a rough estimate says, taken a 25 per cent hit because of roadworks along the Strand. Delays have a knock-on effect on supplies, bookings, the school-run, perception and overall visitor numbers.

The harbourside is firmly open for business and good times are just around the corner - providing everyone can get there on time. DevonLive has visited the traffic cone zone to ask what traders about the roadworks and whether the pain of disruption now will be worth gains in years to come.

Frank Malloy is a chef at Saltwater fish restaurant. He said: "We have not been ordering anywhere near as much produce as we were last year. I've had suppliers asking what is going on.

"We have a chain of suppliers and ordering is down over 50 per cent I would say. It's the summer I'm worried about. It has always been busy here, apart from covid. Even then we did takeaways and needed to get more staff in."

The Strand is the traffic major route connecting both sides of the town. It is the area of the seaside mecca that most visitors recognise. Its other name is the A379 and it stretches along the coast to Exeter and beyond. It was always inevitable that disruption to the traditional two-way flow of traffic would create chaos.

Roadworks on Strand in Torquay
Roadworks on Strand in Torquay -Credit:DevonLive

Four-way traffic lights currently manage entry in and out of the area, allowing workmen to get on with their digging and resurfacing. It has become a regular sight to see a long line of traffic stretching back from the temporary lights along Cary Parade. Drivers wait at the red signal for several minutes for their turn to enter the Strand.

"I don't see the point in what they are doing," says one trader. "The harbour looked lovely before. It's costing £4million. Surely that money could have been better spent sorting out the top end of town or something.

"In the long term it will be nice. But for now lots of people are just avoiding the area. All my friends say 'what's the point in driving to the harbour?' When they come down they are stuck in traffic wishing they were somewhere else."

The traders here work hard and are proud that Torquay is still the holiday destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of people every year. Nearly all of the businesses along Victoria Parade are independent. Many don't want to go on record with their views - fearful of talking the town down, making the problem worse.

This year the town has a bumper season of events lined up, including the airshow, regatta and Agatha Christie Festival.

Frank Molloy on Torquay harbourside
Frank Molloy on Torquay harbourside -Credit:DevonLive

"You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs," says one. "I'm all for it [the public realm]. "It needs doing. Make Debenhams into luxury apartments with some cafes underneath. We don't need more huge hotels.

"A few customers have been staying away due to the roadworks but it will be forgotten about when it is done. Nobody was talking about it last weekend when the sun came out and people were here. It will look stunning when it is done and bring a lot more business."

Many traders have been unhappy with the lack of consultation about the plans. They now regularly meet with the council to voice concerns and iron out problems.

This has resulted in some changes being agreed to the phased work. Alterations to the timetable have been welcomed by businesses, a sign the council is listening. Two-way traffic was permitted over the first May Bank Holiday and the summer holidays will also see an easing of the restrictions.

But there are still grumblings about not enough workmen looking busy on the site, fears the autumn finishing date will be missed and how much disruption will be caused when plans to replace Debenhams are finalised.

Becky Schwartz, manager at the Harvester in Torquay
Becky Schwartz, manager at the Harvester in Torquay -Credit:DevonLive

Becky Schwartz, manager at the popular Harvester, says: "I notice the effect of the roadworks more during the week, during the afternoon. At the weekends people come out anyway but there are difficulties during the week.

"It takes so long to get through that lots of people just prefer not to try. From the plans I've seen I don't really see the point of it. Pedestrianisation makes it less accessible. I haven't see as much growth since it started as I was planning on.

"A lot of people are late for their bookings, especially people on holiday. It annoys them and we get a lot of comments about them having to sit in traffic."

The owner of another long established business on Victoria Parade said: "The traffic is absolutely ridiculous. The traffic lights keep breaking so everybody gets stuck.

"I set off on the school run an hour earlier than usual because I know it will take forever to get there. When I think back to how it was when Coral Island was here and how busy it used to be there is no comparison. Even the zoo at the top [Living Coasts] is empty and nothing is in its place.

"Paignton has a great big park for the kids but there is nothing here for kids."

Torquay harbourside roadworks
Torquay harbourside roadworks -Credit:DevonLive

As one trader puts it: "I guess it's a question of whether the pain will be worth it in the end. It is hard at the moment. Ultimately it will be a great space. There will be two lanes of traffic instead of four. It looks like it's going to be a worse year than last year in terms of trade. Ultimately we don't know how much of that is down to the roadworks and how much to the cost of living.

"I've been in business long enough to know that you have to stand on your own two feet. People complain when it is quiet but when it's busy they don't have time to think about the problems."

A spokesperson for Torbay Council said: "Our Strand (harbour) public realm project, which is being delivered using a share of £21.9million of Town Deal funding started in late 2023. Work on the project is due to be completed in the autumn. It will be a modern, pedestrian friendly space with new planting and seating and will offer a ‘plaza’ style feel, providing the perfect backdrop for other harbourside developments and investment opportunities.

"We continue to engage with harbourside businesses and traders and meet with them regularly to provide updates on the project. Changes have already been made to the remaining phases of the project to minimise the impact of the work, especially over the busy summer months.

"We have given reassurance that the Strand will be open to two-way traffic over the 6-week summer holiday.

"Throughout all phases of the project, car parks and businesses in and around the area remain open and accessible”.