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Inverness businesses open to Academy Street changes but only if they are right

By Scott Maclennan

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Academy Street Queensgate Junction.
Academy Street Queensgate Junction.

Inverness city centre businesses delivered a clear message that they support change on Academy Street but it must be the right change, they must be properly consulted and if the current plans proceed Highland Council could end up in court.

Amid simmering frustrations Inverness BID staged an event to discuss proposals to slash traffic through the city centre by at least 75 per cent to access millions in funding from the Scottish Government’s Places for Everyone scheme.

In attendance were traders, operators, managers and property owners of all sizes from hair salons and small shops to the largest national operators like Marks & Spencer and the Eastgate Centre.

The most significant outcome of the meeting is that the council now faces a major battle if it is to secure funding from scheme administrators Sustrans to implement its plans.

That is because Julian Diamond from Scoop Asset Management, which represents the Eastgate Centre owners, vowed to pursue a legal challenge if the scheme progresses further due to the “consultation process”.

“To be perfectly honest, we don't think it's been handled particularly well,” he said. “There are different aspects to this, but there's been a lack of communication. We don't believe that there has been a formal consultation undertaken properly.

“And therefore if this goes through in a vote in late August we will be pursuing a judicial review against this.”

That is likely to give Sustrans second thoughts on whether to give the go-ahead to funding that could potentially be halted from implementation due to legal proceedings – and it would embarrass the local authority badly.

The consultation effectively offered two options, one which was agreed by businesses and one which was not – yet a third was recommended for approval and agreed, sparking fury from traders who felt misled.

Speaking at the event, Highland Council’s sustainable transport team leader Craig Baxter made it clear to the audience that the redevelopment of Academy Street was just one element of the Inverness City Strategy to boost trade, footfall and generally improve the city and make it greener.

But he was also unambiguous that the object of the plans was to make it inconvenient for people to drive through the city centre.

The scheme is being administered by Sustrans which says the “minimum criteria” for a funding award reallocates road space to active travel, restricts motor traffic, and crucially is “context-specific and evidence-led.”

The lack of an economic impact assessment led to two surveys that found the overwhelming majority of 87 per cent were, in principle, in favour of an upgrade of Academy Street, while 89 per cent also said current proposals were not the right solution.

A separate survey of businesses in the Eastgate Shopping Centre showed 91 per cent believe the current proposals will have a negative impact on businesses.

When asked about these figures Mr Baxter said the council would not comment on them until they had time to see them – Lorraine McBride told him that he was directly sent copies of them in March.

That, argued Scott Murray of CruHoldings and the Inverness City Alliance, set-up to represent all people who use, work or move through central Inverness, is precisely the problem.

He cited the devastating effects of Glasgow’s Low Emission Zone on night time businesses – almost one in ten are out of business since the scheme was implemented.

And on Aberdeen’s Unions Street where the introduction of bus gates – bus lanes are being touted for Academy Street – has left 43 properties empty while no one has taken up the offer of a free £35,000 to open a business there.

“There's a nasty rumour that we're against change and nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We are wholly supportive of change just like BID are but it has to be the right concept, it has to be for the right reasons and it has to be delivered at the right time and that, at the moment, is probably the key issue.

“Nine per cent of businesses – one in ten businesses. The [Glasgow] LEZ was brought in to reduce traffic by 15 per cent and it's had a ten per cent reduction in businesses.

“The proposal from the Highland Council is to reduce traffic by 77 per cent. That's five times the traffic reduction – does that mean five times the number of business closures? We don’t know because there has not been an economic impact assessment carried out.”

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