Some of you will remember that back in 2014 there was a referendum in Farnham to see if residents wanted a pedestrianised zone in the town centre. 51 per cent voted in favour but the project did not proceed.
Since then, a lot of things have changed:
- More towns have created pedestrian zones, recognising that they are generally popular and reflecting the move towards community-focussed town centres. This is drawing people to the centres and helping to revitalise the local shops and restaurants.
- More people are choosing to embrace the café culture in their towns, spurred on by the Covid lock downs that have encouraged working from home, and to welcome the socialising opportunities available in modern town centres.
- There is now an increasing recognition that we should all try to be more active, physically, for our general wellbeing. This means trying to reduce our dependence on our cars and, for those that can, thinking more about cycling and walking.
- Climate change and air pollution have become much greater issues, meaning that government and councils have declared the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, which for transport means finding ways to reduce vehicle mileage and improve the bus services.
Given these factors, it is likely that even more people would vote for pedestrianisation today, given the chance.
All this contributed to the instigation of the Farnham Infrastructure Programme, where our councils recognised that a pedestrianised Farnham town centre would tick those four boxes above and transform our centre into an ‘exemplar’ for Surrey. At long last, our town centre would gain a new, smarter, lease of life.
Benefits of Pedestrianisation
- Ambience – The first thing we will all notice is the joy of being able to walk around without the constant stream of vehicles: safer, quieter, no fumes. This will encourage people to stay longer, browse the shops and meet up with friends. Everyone: children, families, older people and the disabled will all benefit.
- Streetscene – There would still be a single-width vehicle path on the roads, but the extra space created would enable seating, maybe trees and planting, cycle stands and anything else that is not currently possible. Conversely, the existing signage and unsightly railings, which are there to control the traffic, would be removed. We would expect the buildings to be smartened up, so, at last, it will be possible to appreciate the wonderful buildings that comprise the conservation area.
- Shops and hospitality – Farnham’s retail is in better shape than many towns, because of the eclectic mix of independent and national brands. However, the turnover is too high, we need to improve the centre for these businesses to flourish and we need to make sure that the shops in the traditional centre – including the iconic Elphicks department store – are not eclipsed by the new Brightwells shops and restaurants. A strong pedestrian route from East Street to The Hart will ensure that both areas benefit.
- Street events – Pedestrianisation will provide the space for market stalls and special events. The town council is restricted, at the moment, in what we can put on – sometimes we have to turn down opportunities to provide street events. The popular Sunday markets in West Street are limited and the regular Farmers’ markets have to be held in a car park.
How would it work?
The illustration here shows broadly how the scheme would work. It has not been planned in detail by the project, so this is only indicative. Such a scheme has already been endorsed, broadly, by the local architects who have worked on many of the town’s buildings and yards in the past and who have published their ideas in the Herald in the past.
- The pedestrian zone is shown in dark blue. This area would be flat paved and include a defined vehicle lane. Permitted vehicles would be buses, vehicles needing access to premises, emergency vehicles and cycles.
- Union Road, South Street and Woolmead Road would become two-way.
- Most bus routes would be diverted around the pedestrian zone via South Street, however there is a desire for a few routes to go through the zone, providing north-south and east-west connectivity across the town.
- Existing car parks would be available for visitors from each direction. A new link road from Castle Hill to the Upper Hart car park would serve the north.
- Delivery vehicles would have access out-of-hours. During the day a shared pick-up/drop-off service would be able to access the zone.
- Taxi ranks would be placed on all four sides of the zone.
What are the objections?
The main opposition to such a scheme comes from those who feel that traffic excluded from the town centre will cause increased congestion in the Hale and Heath End areas. On the face of it, this is true, however we are in changing times, so it is difficult to predict this impact. If the public embrace the need to reduce car use, for the reasons outlined above, then this impact will recede.
The problems of congestion affect all areas in Farnham. If we all play our part in reducing car use, and if the councils make the necessary improvements in the walking and cycling routes, together with better bus services, then there is good reason to believe that we can achieve the town centre improvements that many people want without causing problems elsewhere.
How do we get there?
Everyone agrees that major changes like this need to be introduced step by step, probably via trial schemes. We would all need time to adjust our travel arrangements. These are the key stages:
- The highways authority needs to make a greater effort to define changes in north Farnham that will reduce the negative impacts in that area. There are ways that this could be done, but nothing has been proposed. At the same time, such changes could provide benefits that the north Farnham residents have been asking for.
- Bus routes should be reviewed to work with the revised road system and to provide direct routes to the town centre from the outlying neighbourhoods. Stagecoach is willing to do this.
- Improvements to walking and cycling routes, and access to the ‘north’ car park need to be implemented.
Whilst this is progressing, the councils should run more trial road closures for markets and events, so that people can see the emerging benefits.
What can you do to help?
This debate has been going on for many years, without resolution, yet many people keep asking for town centre improvements. There has never been a better opportunity than now to get this done, if we don’t get on with it now, it is unlikely that there will be another chance for many years.
If you support the proposals outlined above, you can do two things:
- Respond to the Surrey County Council public consultation, making sure that you express your views and don’t just accept a continuation of the current situation.
- Take part in my Survey Monkey consultation: www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/DS7JZTN
Farnham Residents councillor John Neale stood down as Farnham Town Council leader in April, citing a lack of support for his vision – his survey is independent of the Surrey County Council-run consultation.