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Sheerness shop-keepers rage at coronavirus road closure

Coronavirus may not have killed off Sheerness shops but the town's new road closure might.

The town centre pedestrianisation between 10am to 4pm Mondays to Saturdays came into effect last Thursday.

Happy shoppers snapped on Thursday when Sheerness High Street was first pedestrianised. Picture: Chris Reed
Happy shoppers snapped on Thursday when Sheerness High Street was first pedestrianised. Picture: Chris Reed

It was initially welcomed by shoppers who found queuing on pavements increasingly dangerous as more businesses reopened.

Cllr Chris Reed, a member of Sheerness Town Council and a long-standing campaigner for pedestrianisation, said: "It is good to see Sheerness High Street open, safe and clean for people to shop and stroll and chat."

Phil Crowder, chairman of the Sheerness Town Team also hailed it as a "good move" to stop queuing customers stepping into the road into the path of cars, buses or lorries.

He said: "I know some traders rely on passing trade but in general it will make the town a nicer place to visit and encourage shoppers to stay in the town longer."

But after sales plummeted on Saturday, shopkeepers were quick to demand an end to the closures.

Sheerness dry-cleaner Toygar Hassan took £25 on Monday - but his daily rent is £37.50. Picture: John Nurden
Sheerness dry-cleaner Toygar Hassan took £25 on Monday - but his daily rent is £37.50. Picture: John Nurden

Toygar Hassan who runs the dry-cleaning shop said: "The moment the barriers went up, the town was deserted. On Monday I took £25 all day yet my rent is £37.50.

"Saturday was like a ghost town. But on Sunday, when I am closed, it was buzzing. If this closure is about coronavirus then why isn't the road closed seven days a week? Does the virus take Sundays off?"

West Parker who runs WK key cutting said: "We can only speak about what our tills are telling us. It would help if the 20 minutes' free parking was transferred to the car parks.

"We have competitive prices but once you start adding car parking charges it makes a big difference."

Stephen Saffery who reopened Black Cat DIY shop on Monday said: "I understand the sentiment of a pedestrianised town centre but we don't have the volume of people to warrant it.

Where have all the shoppers gone? David Schwab of Bitz and Bobs looks for customers in Sheerness Broadway. Picture: John Nurden
Where have all the shoppers gone? David Schwab of Bitz and Bobs looks for customers in Sheerness Broadway. Picture: John Nurden

"We don't even have buses dropping people off. We are willing to take a one-off hit for a community event but 21 days could cripple us."

David Schwab who runs Bitz and Bobs in Sheerness Broadway posted a photo showing a deserted road on Saturday on social media. He said: "Thanks to Swale council we have no customers. It's been like this since Thursday."

Steven White who owns Mobile Street in Sheerness High Street fumed: "Trade went through the floor but our councillors seem oblivious to this."

He opened his shop in 2003 and has five other stores across Kent. He said: "When I called Swale council to complain I was told they were following government guidelines. But similar measures have not been brought in elsewhere.

"And where's the offer of free parking to replace the 20 minutes' free parking shoppers usually get in the high street? There's been no thought gone into this."

Bloom or bust: Sue Probert of Daisy Chains Florist in Sheerness High Street. Picture: John Nurden
Bloom or bust: Sue Probert of Daisy Chains Florist in Sheerness High Street. Picture: John Nurden

Shops were sent letters on June 17 giving bosses just eight days' notice. No information was posted in the high street, as is normal, giving shoppers and motorists advance warning. Unlike other road closures there are no staff manning the barriers in case of emergencies.

Butcher Stan Ward said his Saturday takings had been slashed in half and Sue Probert who runs Daisy Chains florists said: "On Saturday I went two hours without seeing a customer.

"One customer was really pleased about the closure and said she felt much safer but then realised how much it was affecting the shops. Nothing picked up until 4pm when the road reopened."

Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson fumed: "Banning traffic and parking from the High Street is a stupid idea that will lead to its death.

"I’m not sure which member of the coalition administration thought up this lunatic proposal but I suspect it was somebody who does not live on the Isle of Sheppey and does not understand the pressures on retail generally.”

Shopper Leah Jones welcomed pedestrianisation of Sheerness High Street but thinks it should be restricted to two or three days a week. Picture: John Nurden
Shopper Leah Jones welcomed pedestrianisation of Sheerness High Street but thinks it should be restricted to two or three days a week. Picture: John Nurden

Shopper Leah Jones welcomed the move but said: "Perhaps the road should only be closed on Tuesdays for the market and other busy days like Saturdays? Otherwise it makes if difficult for the disabled to get to the shops or for businesses to get deliveries."

Matt Brown, chairman of Sheerness Town Council, insisted: "The high street road closures are nothing to do with us. We haven't even had a meeting about them. To be honest, I think they could have been handled more sensitively because people will be impacted by this.

"We can't stop it but we can work with businesses to try to mitigate the impact."

In a Facebook post he wrote: "This was introduced by instruction from the government, not Swale or KCC, and will not be lifted by complaints, petitions or otherwise. The challenge is for businesses to adapt. It is the only option.

"The purpose is to avoid the spread of Covid 19. If that means paying 50p for a half-hour space or walking 20 yards more then, unfortunately, that has to be so and is a tiny sacrifice compared to what some have faced."

Cllr Matt Brown, chairman of Sheerness Town Council
Cllr Matt Brown, chairman of Sheerness Town Council

He warned: "I don't envisage this closure lifting this year unless we see a massive reduction in infection rates."

Fellow town councillor Lee McCall, who also represents Sheerness at Swale council as an independent, said: "I totally support the closures."

He added: "Sheerness Town Council has lobbied Swale council to allow 45 minutes of free parking in its car parks and to introduce a shopper incentive scheme. But these all take time to implement and have to go through the right committees."

Swale council leader Cllr Roger Truelove insisted the closure was a trial in response to government guidance and because public safety is the authority’s first priority.

He said: "This closure is to ensure safe distancing for customers using the shops. I believe there is support for this from within the Sheerness Town Council. We will evaluate progress.”

Be Safe: Warning poster in a deserted Sheerness Broadway. Picture: John Nurden
Be Safe: Warning poster in a deserted Sheerness Broadway. Picture: John Nurden

High streets in Sittingbourne and Faversham have also been pedestrianised but Sandwich Town Council has abandoned its experiment after a backlash from traders.

Cllr Monique Bonney, Swale's cabinet member for economy and property, said: “With more shops reopening and other businesses potentially reopening from July 4 we need to make sure people can stay safe visiting our high streets.

"We’ve already done a lot of work to provide signage and advice for businesses to help them reopen safely but we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure people can shop safely.

“We’ve been working with Sheerness town council to plan these temporary closures which will give pedestrians more room to safely move around and give more space for any queues outside busy shops.

“These measures are necessary to make sure our towns reopen safely and will help give people confidence to come back and access local shops and services.”

Read more: Stories from the Isle of Sheppey here


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