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Legacy of Covid-19 could be greener Inverness

By Alasdair Fraser

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Walkers and runners have been pounding the street in Ness Bank. Picture: Gary Anthony
Walkers and runners have been pounding the street in Ness Bank. Picture: Gary Anthony

HIGHLAND Council is preparing a bid for funds which could be “transformational” in securing a green transport revolution for Inverness.

Officials are working up plans for a network of temporary cycle and walking routes criss-crossing the entire city, linking health centres and key worker hubs during any extended period of social distancing.

It comes as data shows pollution in Inverness’s most toxic street has dropped more than 60 per cent.

While the “pop-up” paths offering safe passage would be short-term, officials claim they could provide a template to promote the vision of permanently slashing city centre pollution and traffic congestion.

Local authorities have been offered a share of up to £10 million through a Spaces for People initiative involving Scottish Government and Sustrans Scotland to pay for improved paths, wider pavements and exercise spaces. Also under consideration are increased pedestrianisation, speed restrictions and one-way traffic systems.

The revelation earlier this year that Academy Street was one of Scotland’s worst polluted roads sparked debate on how to make Inverness a greener city.

Ricardo Energy and Environment, a firm supplying Scottish Government pollution data, estimates nitrogen dioxide levels in Academy Street are down by two-thirds compared to this time last year.

Malcolm MacLeod, the council’s executive chief officer for infrastructure and environment, has been trying to hammer out a region-wide bid for an undisclosed grant sum from the Spaces for People scheme.

He will seek support today from the council’s command structure.

Malcolm MacLeod.
Malcolm MacLeod.

Mr MacLeod said: “We have the opportunity here to be transformational in how we use our spaces.

“It ties in with wider aspirations on climate change and pollution reduction. I guess it is about making the best we possibly can out of the crisis.

“We are proposing a series of green routes through Inverness and a team of officers are now working on the basis of our submission.

“Although it will start as temporary, we hope it will lead to something more permanent.

“There is the practical measure to improve physical distancing as we get back to a semblance of normality, but we also want to build on what we’ve seen in Inverness, with so many more people out cycling and walking.

“We’re putting together a plan and we’ll report it to members. We’d hope to make the application as soon as possible.”

The idea of using temporary arrangements as a model for lasting change was backed by politicians and campaigners.

Green MSP John Finnie said: “We’re very keen to build on some positives coming out of this horrendous state of affairs.

“One of them has been the considerable growth in cycling and walking, greatly enhanced by the significant drop in private car use.

“I’m conscious there’s a lot of bureaucracy that surrounds even modest changes to our road infrastructure, so the fact this can go ahead, even on a temporary basis, is very welcome.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s air pollution campaigner Gavin Thomson said: “We should not celebrate improvements in air quality because they have arrived at a huge social cost.

“But I certainly think, during lockdown and social distancing, temporary re-allocation of road space makes sense.

“I do see one of our tasks longer-term as protecting the increase in active travel we’ve seen.”

Highland Cycle Campaign convenor John Davidson said: “It is a tough time for everybody, but maybe one of the positives is that more people are feeling safer on the roads.

“It is a starting point for some temporary measures and can hopefully show people what’s possible, at a fairly low cost as well.”

Mick Heath, of the local community group Spokes for Folks, hoped the move would end “fragmentation” of current active travel routes.

He added: “I hope council officers grasp the opportunity to extend the number of routes for key life journeys to schools, work and shops to every area. That’s the Holy Grail.”

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