Inverness councillors have narrowly supported proposals to ban private cars from Academy Street.
The controversial plans attracted a last-minute threat of legal action and heavy lobbying from local business owners, including Marks and Spencer.
However, several councillors said most of the feedback they received was positive.
Indeed, Ken Gowans concluded: “Some people think this will be break the city. I think it’s quite the reverse: it will make the city.”
What will change for Inverness Academy Street?
Today’s decision means the Highland Council will apply to the Scottish Government’s Places for Everyone fund to deliver the Academy Street plans.
It already has £800,000 to come up with designs.
The biggest and most controversial change is the removal of private cars.
Vehicular access will be limited to deliveries, taxis, public transport and blue badge holders.
Council planners say this will vastly reduce traffic on the street.
Currently, up to 9,500 cars, vans, lorries and buses use Academy Street every day, of which around half are through-traffic.
The plans also include widening the pavements on Academy Street and adding more pedestrian crossings.
‘We do have to get businesses on board’
Highland Council officers say the proposals represent a “pivotal moment” for the city. They pressed councillors to make a brave decision, observing “change is always uncomfortable”.
Transport planners said the public consultation showed considerable local support for the plan.
Between May and October the consultation site attracted 6,197 visitors and nearly 500 responses. Highland Council said 60% of businesses support the plans, and only 28% said they believe through traffic benefits their business.
However, at the eleventh hour councillors received a stinging objection from Inverness Business Improvement District.
Inverness BID fear the plans will have a negative economic impact, threatening jobs and revenues.
Councillor Helen Crawford highlighted that BID represents 850 city centre businesses, and called on the council to pause for further consultation.
She backed a motion from councillor Alasdair Christie, who suggested the council undertake a one month trial of the plan.
Mr Christie said he personally supports banning cars from Academy Street. However, he sought to reassure local residents and businesses who had objected. To do that, he suggested the council test out the ban, and deal with the “unforeseen circumstances”.
He suggested that one of the biggest challenges would be the displacement of traffic to surrounding streets, including the busy Inshes junction.
In response, council planners said the decision today was simply to take another step forward.
Any further work on Academy Street would include more detailed design work and further consultation. “We do have to get businesses on board,” they said.
Council officers also advised members there is no funding in place for a trial.
‘I only wish we did this sooner’
The debate revealed that members were broadly split along political lines, with most SNP members being strongly in favour.
Both Chris Ballance and Ken Gowans said Academy Street is one of the most polluted in Scotland.
“We have a huge opportunity to change the whole city centre of Inverness and how it’s experienced for people,” said Mr Gowans. “It could be a far cleaner, far quieter city.”
Mr Gowans hopes to see improved air quality and a move towards cafe culture. In short, a more pleasant place to live and visit.
Councillor Emma Knox is an outspoken campaigner for accessibility and active travel. Referencing business concerns, she said there’s “reams of evidence” that restricting traffic has a positive economic benefit.
“We have potential to transform the city,” she said.
Many councillors said their mailbox was full of supportive emails from local residents.
Councillor Bill Boyd said his only reservation is that the council should have done this sooner.
“It’s been worth waiting for,” he added.
Mr Christie’s motion to trial the plan for one month was defeated by just two votes.
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