Controversial changes to Aberdeen’s roads could be rolled back soon, with a crunch summit on the future of physical distancing measures expected on Tuesday.
Council co-leader Douglas Lumsden is to meet with public health officials this week, looking to ascertain once and for all when the temporary bike lanes and pavement widening could be removed.
The Scottish Conservative, standing for election to Holyrood on Thursday, has clarified his position on the roadworks, funded by a £1.76 million Scottish Government grant.
Huge queues of shoppers returning to the high street have been photographed on the city’s Granite Mile since businesses were allowed to reopen last week.
The Market Street to Bridge Street section of Union Street was the first to be closed off under the Spaces For People banner, forcing buses to bypass the busiest stops in Aberdeen.
Lumsden: ‘I would like to see George Street and Rosemount interventions removed soon’
Mr Lumsden, the convener of the council’s resources committee, said he saw the worth of the Union Street measures continuing but wanted clarity on the future of other areas – namely George Street and Rosemount Place.
He told us: “I want a clear timetable for the removal of the Spaces For People interventions.
“It was good to see so many people back into Union Street at the weekend, obviously that helps businesses.
“I understand the need for that just now but I would like to see the George Street and Rosemount interventions removed soon.
“A lot of people have contacted me about those interventions, so I want to get an idea from public health as to whether these are still required.
“And I want some sort of timetable from them and council officials for when they can be removed as I think it’s something businesses in those areas want clarified.”
One-way systems, and partial closures, were installed around Rosemount and George Street to allow more space for pedestrians to safely distance where pavements were too narrow.
Now in place for almost a year, the safety measures were met with fierce opposition when first rolled out – with accusations it was done so quickly there was little time for consultation with affected businesses and residents.
And there was further backlash over later work to install bike lanes from the Bridge Of Don to Footdee along the beach – forcing the council to rip them out after only weeks.
Mr Lumsden’s city growth and resources committee oversees the work and heard in February that it would not be until summer that health experts could be sure the vaccine was effective enough to begin reclaiming the roads from the hundreds of plastic bollards, wooden pavement extensions and benches sat in bus lanes up the city’s main thoroughfare.
At the meeting, deputy public health director Chris Littlejohn told councillors: “Explicitly, NHS Grampian full supports maintaining the protective measures and the Spaces For People programme.
“Things are moving the right direction, we are not there yet but we are in a much better place than the first wave due to much better testing and the vaccination programme – but we can’t lower our guard and make assumptions.”
“Let me frame this in a positive, optimistic way: my hope is by summer we should have a much firmer sense of the protective nature the vaccine programme is.”
SNP: Expert advice ‘must be listened to’
Long-time critic of the Spaces For People work in Rosemount, SNP councillor Bill Cormie, has been calling for the scaling down of the measures for months having raised concerns over speeding.
He said: “The one way system in Rosemount Place is an issue so we really need buses going up and down to slow traffic.
“Everything is almost back to normal.
“There is no queuing that we saw the first time round and only the bottleneck outside Sainsbury’s is the problem.
“The Spaces For People work overstepped the mark, as the majority of traders here would tell you.
“The parking in the middle of the road has caused absolute chaos and cars are speeding down roads like Short Loanings as a shortcut.
“I know folk living and working here would want Spaces For People removed as soon as possible, as I have spent the last months calling for.”
His group leader, Councillor Alex Nicoll, added: “These measures were implemented by Councillor Lumsden, fully funded by the Scottish Government, to ensure people had space to keep safe.
“It is up to Councillor Lumsden and his administration colleagues to decide when these measures are removed but this pandemic is not over yet and he must listen to the advice from the public health experts as acting too early could cause difficulty.”
Rosemount trader: Removal date would be ‘a good starting point’
The council has been talked into rolling back parts of the Spaces For People work throughout the year.
A bus gate installed at the top of Esslemont Avenue, stopping turns into and out of Rosemount Place, was removed after council chiefs walked the popular shopping street with angry traders.
Belvidere Gallery owner Alan Watt was one of them, and welcomed the prospect of having light at the end of the tunnel.
He has been outspoken about the remaining one-way system imposed between Argyll Place and Mount Street, arguing it encouraged speeding and made the area’s boutique shops inaccessible for many.
“We would certainly welcome some ort of date; it would be a good starting point,” he told us.
“The start of this pandemic the council certainly emphasised these were all temporary measures.
“I guess we were all a wee bit apprehensive at the time but now things are improving and people are being vaccinated.
“We are really looking to get back to normal and if these restrictions are lifted it will benefit elderly and disabled people who have struggled to get from A to B and make the community more vibrant.”