Ever since the coaching age (if not before), High Street has been congested and sometimes dangerous. Even if the street often looks quiet on old photographs, there are accounts of many accidents involving horses, carts, coaches and pedestrians, not surprisingly when the lower High Street is still only 16 feet wide.
The first significant widening was planned in 1818 and after World War II, a building line of 40 feet minimum was proposed. Unfortunately to achieve this would have meant demolishing any number of historic buildings. By 1956, the local paper was reporting congestion chaos, particularly at the junctions with Towngate Street. The idea of pedestrianising the High Street started at least as early as 1982. High Street shops were already threatened by the development of the Arndale Centre and seemed likely to be sidelined if nothing was done to improve the amenities of the street.
The plan to pedestrianise the street from the railway crossing to Old Orchard was not widely approved. The Chamber of Trade supported a 54-name petition against the plan and there was talk of a public enquiry. It was not until 1986 that the plan came to the Planning and Highways Sub-Committee and work began. The scheme would cost £200,000 and there were various problems to overcome, deliveries to shops, loss of parking, road crossings, safety, siting of street furniture and so on. The plan was to provide decorative brick paving, tree planting, new street furniture, hanging baskets and a facelift for the shop fronts. There was talk of a ‘continental’ High Street.
In the next few months, the transformation took place towards the High Street we know today. Of course it wasn’t the end of the story. Only a year later, the local newspaper was reporting that ‘High Street traders were jubilant this week after hearing that councillors had thrown out plans to site a market in the new pedestrian precinct.’ The plan was to site 30 candy-striped market stalls in the street at least two days a week. All but one of the traders and most of the correspondents to the newspaper were against the idea which was rejected by the Council on the grounds of obstructing the street, loss of visual amenity and the objection of the traders.
In 1989, an advertising feature described the High Street as ‘now a smartly paved pedestrian walkway with plenty of comfortable benches for shoppers to rest on and picturesque trees to admire. The High Street presents one of the most pleasing places to shop in the area.’ By 1991, the traders were finding the Council’s policy of banning stalls and displays too rigid. They complained that the tough stance was ‘killing off the area’ and argued that ‘outside displays are part of a bustling street scene which helps to attract shoppers’. The Council was concerned about keeping the area clear for pedestrians and also maintaining the standards of shop fronts and advertising. Then there was the great A-frame controversy of 1995! Traders felt that the campaign to stop them advertising outside their shops would kill off their businesses. Greengrocers would be particularly hard hit if they could not display their goods on the street. They even threatened to take the Council to the European Court over the ban.
In 2000, it was the trees which had been planted when the original scheme was carried out that were causing controversy. Two plane trees in particular had grown very large and were pushing up the pavement and brushing the eves of the buildings. They were also in the sight lines of CCTV cameras. The conservation planning officer, John Biggs said that they could live for 60 to 100 years and grow much bigger if left. The general opinion was that they were beautiful trees but just too big for the space and should be removed. With some regret, the Council eventually did fell the trees which were just too healthy for their own good.
Today High Street has absorbed many of these ‘problems’. The trees in question have gone but others remain. A-frames survive and in fact seem to be multiplying. The street market has established itself at least two days a week. Does it attract more shoppers into the area or take trade away from the shops? Are there too many obstacles for pedestrians, particularly on markets days? Perhaps you have your own ideas about that. Certainly there will be more controversies in the future, because High Street is always changing.
Sources: Poole Advertiser / Pedestrianisation Plans 1986