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Shopkeepers' fury as Swale council closes Sittingbourne High Street

By John Nurden

Furious shopkeepers are threatening to sue Swale council for loss of earnings after it went ahead and closed Sittingbourne High Street without agreement today.

Traders insist the scheme to move market stalls into the town centre will only work if traffic in Central Avenue is reversed so cars and delivery vehicles can access shops.

But Swale council went ahead with the experiment without waiting for that to happen.

Road closed: Sittingbourne High Street on Friday. Picture: Chris Davey FM5040288

It followed a stormy meeting on Tuesday night between officers and traders when business bosses voiced concerns about Friday deliveries, access to properties and short-term parking.

Last Friday the High Street was closed a week early and caused uproar when traders in the lower end, near the council’s own offices at Swale House, accused officers of creating a “ghost town.”

Last night campaigner Mark Woods, who runs Topps Jewellers, said: “We told the council about our concerns but it hasn’t listened.

Martin Woods of Topps Jewellery is one of the traders concerned at the closure of Sittingbourne High Street on Friday. Picture: Chris Davey FM5040239

"There are three factors needed to make this work: 1. closing the High Street; 2. moving the market from the Forum car park and 3. reversing the flow in Central Avenue where it joins the High Street. You can’t do the first two without the third.

"It has turned our part of the High Street into a ghost town despite Fridays being one of our busiest days of the week. We can’t even get deliveries.”

Fellow campaigner Richard Morgan, who runs Ricky’s Barbers Shop at 63 High Street, has collected a petition from fellow traders and is now threatening to take the council to the small claims court for loss of earnings.

Ricky Morgan at Ricky's Barbers is threatening to sue Swale council for its "botched" closure of Sittingbourne High Street on Friday. Picture: Chris Davey FM5040221

Mr Woods said: “I reckon 30 of us will all be submitting claims.”

A letter sent to Mr Woods yesterday from Cllr Mike Cosgrove, the cabinet member for regeneration who chaired the Tuesday meeting, said: "As agreed, we have looked again at the implementation of the one-way scheme for reversal in Central Avenue.

"This has not been fully implemented because we are required by Kent County Council to monitor the impact and safety considerations of the town centre. This has to be done for four weeks.

Stormy weather as Sittingbourne High Street closes to traffic on Friday. Picture: Chris Davey FM5040264

"The Road Traffic Orders are complicated but we are further exploring if there is a way through the legal and consultation process for suspension or a temporary amendment.

"Until we have a final answer on this, we consider we need to continue with the current procedure because other options are more complicated. We are trying to speed the whole process up.”

As a temporary measure, he arranged for today’s delivery of beer to The George pub to be escorted through the market by marshals on foot.

Ghost town: Sittingbourne High Street closed to traffic on Friday. Picture: Chris Davey FM5040249

The council confirmed that anyone living in the High Street can still drive to their homes.

A spokesman for Swale council said: "The council’s current intention is to fully implement all three elements of the Road Traffic Order (RTO).

"We implemented phases one and two but not the third on the advice of traffic advisors who were concerned about public safety, which must be paramount.

"Given the complex nature of RTOs, we believe this phased approach allows the Council to address this concern over the coming weeks while implementing the required relocation of the market.

"This allows us to continue our delivery of the planned regeneration."

Cllr Mike Cosgrove, Cabinet Member for Regeneration, said: "We are committed to working with local traders to resolve their concerns because their success is vital to the future of the town centre.

"As a first step we have guaranteed their deliveries will take place without problems.”

Kent County Council has not yet responded for a comment.

Open Letter to Swale Council

Pet shop owner Vic Brobyn has written an open letter to Swale council complaining about a lack of consultation and accusing it of incompetence.

He said: "I, and a majority of the retailers in the lower end of the High Street, are extremely disappointed in the way we have been treated by Swale council.

"The council has had more than three years to sort out the problems that were obviously going to occur with the moving of the market from the Forum to the High Street.

"The council was informed of the concerns of the retailers from day one.

"We have had no updates from the council on the situation for more than a year. To leave it to the day before the closure, without any notification, is a disgrace.

"How can it be that stage three of this part of the regeneration is still not in place due to concerns of Kent Highways over safety? Why was this not done sooner?

"The members of the council at the meeting on Tuesday apologised to the retailers for the lack of communication in dealing with this matter.

"That an organisation can make such a basic mistake such as this is either total incompetence or just a ploy to stall the process, or even make sure it doesn’t happen.

"Fridays is a very important trading day of our week. We want access to our shops for deliveries and, more importantly, for our customers.

"We stand to lose potentially 600 free parking spaces in a town where there are not enough spaces as it is. We want temporary parking in the lower end of the High Street on Fridays."

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