Critics slam Highland Council's slant on economic 'benefits' of Academy Street plans
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CONCERNS have been raised that an analysis of the likely impact of controversial changes to Academy Street may be too one-sided.
A Freedom of Information request seen by the Courier revealed a tender document put out to WSP – an Edinburgh-based company – to conduct an economic impact assessment (EIA) of long-running proposals to limit traffic access to the main city centre route.
The frame of reference seeks to determine the “benefits” of the proposals including widening pavements, halting through traffic and slashing vehicle movements by more than 70 per cent.
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Businesses including M&S, the Eastgate Shopping Centre and others have been up in arms, saying that they still feel betrayed by the consultation process over the proposals they believe will devastate city centre trade.
Nevertheless, Highland Council is pressing ahead despite admitting “the immediate operational impacts of the Academy Street Proposals are not yet fully understood.”
The EIA under the terms put forward is likely to ramp up tensions even further.
According to the tender the assessment should “seek to quantify or qualitatively report” that the “core benefits are journey ambience (cycle infrastructure enhancements) and physical activity (new users walking and cycling through the area)” along with “minor” air quality and noise benefits forecast.
The only mention of consideration to be given to disadvantages of the proposed changes is a request to record “journey time disbenefits for car users”, placed against “bus journey time savings for bus users.”
Among other benefits to be considered are “increases in business rates” (through projected opening of new businesses) and “tourism benefits”, “enhanced transport connectivity”, biodiversity gains and place making benefits like reduced crime.
The council refused to answer when asked why it appeared to be failing to explore potential negative impacts to the same extent and proceeding with a scheme when its outcome is unknown, instead focussing solely on the integrity of the firm undertaking the EIA, which had not been questioned.
A spokesman said: “WSP have been appointed as the lead consultant and are a long-established consultancy with over 130 years of experience, and it goes without saying that they approach technical studies with professionalism and integrity in alignment with their policies, which will see the technical study underpinned by available evidence and informed by the expertise of their staff.
“This will include any possible positive or negative economic or other costs. WSP will engage with the relevant stakeholders throughout this process.”
Inverness Business Improvement District (BID) director Lorraine Bremner McBride in her column in today’s Courier also expressed her concerns about the EIA after striving for months to get agreement to have one, she now feels “disappointed” at the approach taken.
She said: “The briefing document confirms that the consultants appointed to undertake the assessment have been restricted to examining the already preferred option only, without consideration of any other alternatives.
“The exercise is to be undertaken remotely, in under eight weeks and, despite our reasonable request, without a single business or sector in the city centre being engaged or consulted with directly.
“The brief also appears to mandate that there should be an accentuation of the positive impacts of the preferred plan with an emphasis moreover on transport-related economics, broader economic and qualitative measures.
“For individual businesses and sectors this means that one of the repeated key questions may remain unanswered ie what will the likely direct economic impact be for my business and our staff/clients/customers?”
She added: “Businesses and the public – as well as all other stakeholders – must have a genuine opportunity to participate in local decision-making rather than being given what arguably may be viewed otherwise as just ‘an illusion of choice’.”