Your HIgh Street Leatherhead

I intended this to be seen by Councillors and Officers of the MVDC but computer problems kept it from being seen. I am now opening this to a wider audience for all to see. Have your own say now.

Preferred option

When you meet on Tuesday you will perhaps ask yourself the question:

“Did the Counsel get its preferred option for the High St correct?”

I had to read the minutes of the Ashtead/Leatherhead Forum to find that the Council’s PREFERRED OPTION for the Leatherhead High Street was the licensing of the Public Highway to local restaurants for the placement of tables and chairs to create a SMOKING AREA for diners. The concept of extending hours for outside dining was occasionally mentioned at meetings but not in relationship with term ‘preferred option’. For years I have attended public meetings and heard counsellors and representatives of Leatherhead Area Partnership(LAP) and the Leatherhead Residents’ Association(LRA) deplore the condition of the surface of the High Street. Long lists of the unsafe and unsightly areas of the pavement have been made on several occasions by counsellors. The LAP was convinced that the only way forward was to take a comprehensive look at the entire area and to remove clutter, repair pavements and in general make the Public Highway a safer more attractive place to be. To this end, Di Stirling, Chair of the LAP Highways Group, wrote a comprehensive report stating her recommendations.

Beyond this every aspect of the project seems to be shrouded in secrecy. Colin Langley did report to the Committee of the Residents’ Association in January that the Council had plans for the High Street. When some concern was voiced he had no details to report. I now believe he thought there would be a public consultation before the preferred option became an accepted concept.

In May David Sharland reported to the LRA’s General Meeting that plans for the redevelopment of the High Street would be unveiled at the May meeting of the Leatherhead/Ashtead Forum. We were assured that ‘all will be revealed’. At this same LRA meeting a proposal for the extension of hours to have chairs on the Public Highway in front of Wetherspoon’s was discussed. Of particular concern were the number of times the licensing board have had to deal with the pub, the litter outside, the comments their customers made to passersby, and the harassment of disabled people were listed as objections to extended hours. In spite of these strong objections, a vote of 11 to 7 was in favour of extended hours if several firm conditions were in place.The implication for safety of pedestrians was not considered before this vote. Further examination of the Wetherspoon’s proposal made me aware that the Leader of the Council had written to 5 Leatherhead pubs and restaurants suggesting they seek permission to extend hours diners could sit on the High Street in order to boost the night economy. At a time when night time trade in Leatherhead seems to be quite good and morning and afternoon trade in Leatherhead seems almost nonexistent, it would appear preferential to favour pubs and restaurants over the struggling shops. It was almost unbelievable to read in the minutes of the Ashted /Leatherhead Forum that this has been MVDC’S ‘preferred option’ since November. Cllr. Hunt’s statement about extended hours for placement of tables on the High Street actually made no sense. He said at the 11th May meeting that extending the placement of chairs would help boost trade for local shops. I spoke to him after the meeting to correct this misconception: You cannot increase footfall to shops when they are in fact closed. This nonsense appeared in the minutes to the Ashtead /Leatherhead Forum and also in the Leatherhead Advertiser.

Some of us have thought for years that trade to both restaurants and shops would be boosted if cars were allowed on the High Street after 4:30 (a return to what the Civic Trust recommended to help the failing economy of Leatherhead in their 1990 report on our town). This use of the highway was considered a compromise that many of us found quite helpful.

Unfortunately, SCC’s failure to enforce the pedestrianization of the High Street between 10:00 and 4:30 for a 6-year period led to having the compromise disappear. It makes perfect sense to think that a parent who was allowed to conveniently park in Leatherhead would stop after school, before the shops close at 5:00, `and be tempted to buy a meal for her children at one of the restaurants.

The truth is that on 11th May ‘All was not Revealed’

We all patiently sat through two long presentations (55 and 40 minutes) with the High Street-unveiling pushed to the last position. With 5 minutes of scheduled time Cllr. Hunt informed us that SCC’s Highway Department required a barrier to protect customers seated at tables. A four-foot high prototype was on display. It looked something like a cage and we were told that it was to be purchased, decorated and maintained by the restaurant owner. It would be an appalling addition to any High Street but particularly so considering how narrow our High Street is and how many possible restaurants (we were told 8) would be eligible to purchase the barriers. With the potential for 8 restaurants to decorate in their own colour and style the possibility for grossness became even more palpable.

What we were not told was what would happen to the pedestrians when they were displaced by the barriers into the paths of cars and trucks that are allowed onto the High Street after 4:30. Only one surface on the Public Highway was designed for pedestrians. That is the pavement closest to the building that now provides a location for placing chairs and tables after 10 and before 4:30. This period does not cause a huge problem for pedestrians because they move into the centre of the road. The surface is far from perfect for walking because of the irregular bricks but it is much superior to the craggy bricks used to designate parking spaces. The centre of the road also puts pedestrians at a distance from smokers who are more likely to use outdoor seating. At its best the roadway is unsafe for walking because it has not been properly maintained by SSC. The campaign to remove chewing gum has caused further damage because of the use of pressure sprayers. I spoke to a lifetime Leatherhead resident yesterday who reported that she had helped 3 people off the pavement due to falls in the last 2 weeks. She said in principle she was against the concept of sueing for damages, but that her advice now is to ‘sue the council.’ I certainly expected that the plans for the redevelopment of the High Street would have at its core a scheme for improving the surface of the High Street. You cannot talk sensibly about the placement of chairs on the High Street before you know how the surface will change. Only rumours have informed of the possible ways of dealing with the poor maintenance the High Street has experienced. I have not heard of a single method that will work. The one mentioned most often is the use of asphalt. You only have to look to London to see what happens to asphalt when it is applied over brick. The use of brick was a expensive option to make a High Street in a conservation area different from any backstreet in the country. It is a shame that subtle differences in colour were not used instead of the differences in texture that are now contributing to the number of falls on the High Street.

It will take the wisdom of Solomon and an enormous budget to sort out Leatherhead’s High Street. Extending seating hours in front of restaurants and pubs is not the answer and will only cause more problems in the long and short term. Although many people may desire to see chairs on the High Street, we must ask ourselves whether this is a wise and practical option. I am told it works all over Europe. Unfortunately, we do not have Europe’s climate or weather. Estrellas has had chairs in front of its restaurant permanently for over a year. If tables are the answer to a restaurant’s success, Estrellas should be the busiest restaurant on the High Street. Unfortunately, this is not true. I have not seen anyone sitting in front of Estrellas in
months. Perhaps they are waiting for a sunny, summer evening. At the Ashtead and Leatherhead Forum there was an outcry to proclaim, ‘We have not been consulted.’ The chairman of the LRA, Hubert Carr, spoke at length to defend the right for consultation at a much earlier point in the development of Planning Strategy for our Town . The LRA has the membership and communications network for polling its members and getting significant feedback. Even Colin Langley, who is he declared ‘Champion of the High Street’, stated that he has not been consulted.

If the local residents’ had been consulted last November, we would have had a very different preferred option. If the outcry at the Ashtead and Leatherhead Forum had been heard, a representative of the LAP and LRA would be attending Tuesday’s meeting. At the Council’s expense after the last High Street fiasco, a report by Dr.Whitelegg came to the conclusion that: Consultation in Leatherhead is severely lacking. Years later nothing has improved. The scheme for the ‘water’ feature at the west end of the High Street was determined by a few councillors including the Leader, representatives from SCC and MVDC, and a few planning officers with some 106 money to spend on the most controversial area of Leatherhead’ the High Street. This process tore our town apart. On 26 May there will be a meeting of a few councillors including the leader,representatives from SCC and MVDC, and a few planning officers with 106 money to spend on the most controversial area of Leatherhead, the High Street.

It is time for change. Consult the residents earlier in the Planning Process so they can make a difference.

Posted in planning.