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Nicky Marr: Economic case needs to be made for radical Academy Street change

By Nicky Marr

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Proposed View of Academy Street
Proposed View of Academy Street

Have you seen Highland Council’s proposals for reducing through-traffic on Academy Street in Inverness?

The mocked-up images look fantastic. Trees and planters separate generously wide pavements from the carriageway, and there are dramatically reduced vehicle numbers, allowing (helmet-less!) cyclists to pedal safely alongside buses, taxis, and cars.

The road surface looks smooth and free of potholes and bollards. There are children and dogs, and people sitting outside cafés. Even the sun is shining. If Highland Council – with the help of funding from Sustrans – can achieve this for Inverness, then I’m all in.

But not everyone is in favour. In the spirit of trying to understand all sides of the debate, I attended a public meeting in Eden Court on Monday, hosted by Inverness BID on behalf of city centre businesses, and attended by Highland Council, Inverness City Alliance, and the owners of the Eastgate Centre.

There were politicians in attendance too, plus a handful of local councillors. But the majority of the audience was made up of city centre business owners, and residents of neighbouring residential areas.

If traffic is to be diverted from Academy Street, unless people can be persuaded into active travel, the cars will have to go somewhere. There are fears that the narrow streets of Crown, home to one of the city’s busiest primary schools, will be overrun with displaced city centre vehicles, merely transferring Academy Street’s congestion and pollution problems up the hill.

Monday’s meeting saw an awful lot of talking, but perhaps not so much listening. And it highlighted fear; fear among the city centre business community that these proposals for “Making Academy Street a Place for Everyone” might be their death knell.

My headline takeaways from the presentations are these: between 50-75 per cent of all cars on Academy Street are passing straight through, therefore not stopping to use local businesses at all; and around 80 per cent of Inverness BID members who responded to a survey either oppose or strongly disagree with the current plans.

While a largely car-free city centre might be desirable, the absence of reliable transport links means that for many shoppers and businesspeople there is no alternative. Academy Street needs to be changed, but is this the right solution?

So, if the business community doesn’t want these changes, should Highland Council proceed? And while businesses are still recovering from the impacts of the pandemic, sky-high utility bills, and staff shortages, is now the right time to be causing disruption?

But Highland Council find themselves backed into a time-sensitive funding corner. They are bidding, against councils from across Scotland, for cash to help finance the changes to Academy Street.

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Unless they can prove their plans will radically decrease cars in Academy Street, it’s unlikely the funds will come to Inverness. Academy Street sorely needs a facelift, but without a plan that cuts traffic, there’s simply no money.

But is the promise of funding reason enough to be pushing ahead with this current plan, especially as so many local businesses are opposed to it?

I wonder if at the root of all this is fear. Businesses have been through so much in the past three years, and even staying afloat is hard. Those who have survived this far have done so on their ingenuity and wits, often with personal sacrifice.

What the meeting heard, is that they fear a negative impact on their livelihoods, both once new traffic measures are in place, and while the roadworks are under way.

Without a properly investigated independent Economic Impact Survey, of course they fear the worst. Frankly, I can’t blame them.

Part of planning is consultation, and part of consultation is listening. The biggest demand that I heard in the room on Monday was for the economic impact of the council’s proposals, bonny as they may look, to be properly investigated. Only then will we know whether cycling helmet-free between M&S and MacGregor’s Bar – in the sunshine – is going to be worthwhile.

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