I am a fervent supporter of the pedestrianisation and of beautiful paving in town centres. In my childhood, shopping visits to local towns was a nightmare of circling round trying to find a parking spot in High Streets where buses, cars, delivery van and pedestrians all fought for space.
The only exception was Tunbridge Wells where the Pantiles provided a pleasant pedestrian space, once one had found a parking spot nearby. Medieval towns with city walls and gatehouses are a challenge for traffic planners: Canterbury has managed a pedestrianisation beautifully, but Rye is still a misery where cars and tourists struggle for space in summer months. Whitstable is another town popular with visitors to its independent shops but nerve-wracking if one is trying to walk with young children, or someone in a wheel chair, along its narrow pavements; buses swishing by inches from the kerb. I far prefer to shop in shopping centres, or a pedestrianised town centre.
Black asphalt over the paving
So, I was shocked to read that Kent County Council (KCC) may be about to put down black asphalt over the ‘cobbles’ on the Lower High Street, Ashford, a pedestrianised area. I went along to a public meeting of the transport committee to listen to the arguments and reasons why. The meeting was poorly advertised and I only heard about it after a chance meeting with a councillor. But I had already indicated my interest by emailing the one contact person in the public notice with some questions about storm water.
‘Cobbles’ is a misnomer as the surface is actually small square granite blocks. This costly surface was put down only about two decades ago when there was the big reorganisation of the town centre, in keeping with pedestrianisation. So, although it looks picturesque beside some of the oldest buildings, there are no historic grounds for preserving them.
The main arguments I heard for the asphalting were:
- KCC can fit this job in in January, using up the last of a budget (and presumably the same contractors who are repairing the shared space and Godinton Road). But councillors must decide quickly or lose the offer. As this is classified as ‘highway’, KCC have the ultimate say anyway.
- The cobbly surface is dangerous for the disabled and infirm, and there have been complaints.
- The surface needs frequent costly patch repairs, and the proposed tarmac would not need to be repaired so often.
- If the proposed tarmac was made a pleasanter lighter colour (pinkish is possible) any repairs would still need to be done in black tarmac.
- To replace with the same granite blocks (or bricks?) would be beyond budget and still need to be repaired too often.
Against these arguments, I heard:
- Smooth crossing points should be sufficient for the infirm.
- Tarmac on the road would encourage more (illegal) electric scooters.
- Making it more like a road would tempt more drivers to go up it for convenience.
My understanding, after robust discussion, is that the majority of councillors present voted for a motion that accepted the KCC offer, provided concerns about storm-water and speeding vehicles were taken into account.
Next day I walked along to the site, noting the spots in needs of repair, the drainage gullies, the ugly patches where black tarmac has been used for repair, and the condition (mostly good) of the pavements paved with brick or large slabs. It is a pity that there was not a visual presentation to the councillors at the time of their discussion.
There is no need for the infirm to step on the ‘cobbles’ at all. There are four smooth crossing points, and the smooth pavements are adequate for the number of pedestrians, including the infirm or those on wheels. The bumpy granite blocks are laid mostly where there is vehicle access, in oblong blocks for parking.
It is obvious that the intention of the design, of having varied types of paving, was to enhance the look of the centre as a pedestrian space. To put black tarmac there is to go back to a high street cluttered with cars, as I remember it in my childhood. There is also the much more likely risk to the infirm of more illegal electric scooters. Black tarmac absorbs the sunlight too much which will cause this part of town to be more of a heat trap in our warming climate.
Paving in Canterbury
I was in Canterbury recently, admiring the beautiful brick paving of the pedestrianised old streets. Granted, Canterbury is a more prestigious town than Ashford, but I think we should be proud to be up and rising, with the plans for the film studio, enlarged further education college, the new Elwick centre, and the Brompton e-bike factory. Our councillors should not undervalue the need for an attractive town centre. Black tarmac, once slapped down will not be removed in decades. It is a cheap and nasty solution. I always mistrust a seller who tries to rush a sale… buy now or lose it. In my experience, such goods are often substandard. KCC had a certain sum of money to spend at the end of the year, looked around to see which council would be wally enough to accept a rush job. Hurry now, councillors, and regret later… Much better to wait until there is enough money to do a thorough job.
Actually, googling paving options, I would favour tough plastic grids on the oblongs where the parking spots have to be marked out, and even on the ‘road’. This might still mean taking up the old cobbles (probably expensive in labour) but the material is cheap (some £8 per metre) and can look good if grass is planted inside the grid, which would be in keeping with the trees there. Such grids are low maintenance, and permeable for drainage. With grass on them they would not look like a highway as asphalt does, and thus would deter illegal scooters and motorists taking short cuts. This would give sufficient access to delivery vans and disabled parking without remaking a road through.
What I am strongly against is the lazy option of slapping down black asphalt which almost transforms this street back to a road system. Let us defend pedestrianisation!