Within 24 hours of council staff delivering letters to High Street traders warning them that the closure would take effect from Monday 24 August, the council backed down amid a storm of protests from shopkeepers and local residents.
Over 60 objections had been sent by email to the Chipping Barnet MP, Theresa Villiers, within hours of the announcement on the morning of Wednesday 29 July.
She confirmed the council’s U-turn the following afternoon in an email to constituents.
Ms Villiers thanked Barnet’s councillors for having acted so “swiftly” to respond to the outrage expressed on social media platforms such as Next Door which published a barrage of complaints about the lack of consultation and the fear that the closure to through traffic, however temporary, would “kill off” the High Street.
The ban on through traffic – still being negotiated with Transport for London because of the impact on bus routes – was regarded by council officers as the only way to ensure safe distancing on the narrow pavements beside the parish church of St John the Baptist.
The paramount importance – said council officials – was to ensure public safety and prevent further Covid-19 infections as lockdown measures are eased.
The ban was timed to be introduced in the last week of August so that it would be in place ready for the return of pupils to local schools and students to Barnet and Southgate College who do tend to crowd along the bottleneck beside the parish church.
On hearing of the threatened closure, High Street traders demanded an immediate rethink, saying deliveries would be halted and business decimated.
They were backed by residents whose roads would have had to take traffic diverted along Wood Street and then forced to use one-way routes to reach the St Albans Road, via either Stapylton Road or The Avenue and Alston Road.
In welcoming the announcement, High Barnet councillor David Longstaff said he had received a "phenomenal" number of obections to the "incendiary" suggestion that displaced traffic could be directed down The Avenue and Alston Road.
As far as he knew there had been no prior discussion with traders and disabled groups before the letter was sent to High Street traders. "As a plan, this was as poor as it could be." He had advised council staff that the High Street closure would have had the completely opposite effect to the one they intended.
In her email to constituents, Ms Villiers said that when the idea of closing the High Street was first floated a few weeks ago she expressed her opposition because she feared it would deter people from visiting the High Street.
“After our High Street has been hit so hard by Covid-19, I was reluctant to see measures adopted which could discourage people from heading back to pubs, restaurants and shops.
“When I learned that council officers intended to press ahead with this proposal, I immediately raised my concerns with councillors.
“I am really grateful to them for having listened to my representations, along with those of many other residents, who have been in touch to say they want their High Street to stay open.
“I want to thank councillors for acting swiftly in response to public opposition to the closure.”
Ms Villiers says she accepts that innovative thinking is needed to keep shoppers and pedestrians safe in the High Street, but she was not convinced that pedestrianisation was the right way forward.
Gary Murphy, landlord of the Mitre, who had rallied objections to the closure, congratulated councillor Longstaff for having helped marshal opposition to the closure.
“Well done to all objectors for putting a stop to this ill-considered plan. People power!”
Robin Bishop, chair of the Barnet Society, welcomed the U-turn, believing it was obvious the proposed closure had not been properly thought through.
He joined with the MP in recognising the need for maintaining safe social distancing and now that the council had backed down, he hoped the Barnet Society, Barnet Residents Association, Barnet Town Team and other organisations could work with the council to consider alternative measures.
Among the ideas posted on social platforms were suggestions that pedestrians might be encouraged to show greater self-discipline and that school pupils and college students who crowd together on the pavements around the church might be encouraged to disperse and reduce any threats of infection.