A £20 million grant towards Aberdeen’s new market development could be at risk if the permanent pedestrianisation of Union Street is not carried out.
Conditions attached to the cash, announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak during last month’s budget, are not clear – but it has at least been confirmed that a ban on vehicles from the Granite Mile has been already agreed with UK ministers.
Aberdeen councillors on the city growth (finance) committee will vote later on proposals on a car-free stretch between Market Street and Bridge Street.
The change could be accompanied by a reprioritisation of Market Street, Bridge Street and Guild Street in favour of buses and bikes to offset the loss of the Granite Mile strip.
‘Any deviation’ could cost Aberdeen millions
And on the eve of the vote, convener Ryan Houghton admitted: “As detailed in the report before committee, the successful award of £20m from the UK Government included the Market, links to Guild Street and Union Street Central pedestrianisation in line with UK Government carbon reduction targets.
“Any deviation from the application could put that award at risk and I’d encourage everyone to reflect carefully.”
It is understood that if pedestrianisation is not endorsed this afternoon, top brass would be obliged to go back to tell the UK’s levelling up office – risking a revision of the cash promised for the market.
There are calls, led by Liberal Democrat group leader Ian Yuill, for urgent information from the UK Government on what other provisos are attached to the much-heralded levelling up cash.
“It is important that the UK Government quickly provides clarity over the conditions attached to the offer of £20 million,” Mr Yuill said.
“That will allow councillors to make an informed decision about the market project.”
All concept images of the market have shown people walking and cycling down the middle of the city’s main thoroughfare but the decision on pedestrianisation and the market are two separate issues to be considered, along with potentially huge investment at the beach which might include a new football stadium.
The ‘international-style’ food and drink market is planned for the former British Homes Store and existing indoor market building.
New council papers show the cost of the project, previously thought to be £75m, has now been revised to £50m.
More on the £150m refresh of the city centre masterplan:
- Union Street, Schoolhill and Upperkirkgate could all be permanently pedestrianised
- Aberdeen FC chief praises ‘real vision’ of council’s beach stadium plans
- Take a look inside Aberdeen’s planned £75m market in Union Street
- Spaces For People: Parts of Union Street could be cleared of controversial physical distancing works by end of November
- Ben Hendry’s comprehensive ‘all you need to know’ guide
Depending on votes – which may well be decided on whether or not to allow buses to regain access to their seven busiest Aberdeen stops along Union Street – it could be that the market proposals proceed and that the car ban does not.
It is understood that, in those circumstances, Town House chiefs would be forced to go back to Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove’s department to inform them of the change as they are deemed “interdependent”.
The city’s two major bus firms have hit out at the plans, with First Aberdeen finding, in a poll of its passengers, that 57% would abandon the once-proud shopping street if public transport were diverted away from it.
Predictable council voting is no sure thing
As a result, SNP group leader Alex Nicoll has already ruled out supporting full pedestrianisation, indicating support for restored bus access to the stretch currently blocked off as part of the city centre physical distancing project.
But the majority of the 800 levy-paying firms within the city centre business improvement district have voiced support for the plans – which first emerged some 35 years ago.
The Conservative, Labour and independent administration usually has the votes to overcome opposition but kingmaker Councillor Marie Boulton – who heads up the city centre masterplan work – has previously revealed she does not think pedestrianisation is a straight forward matter.
Back in September, she told our readers officials were exploring “creative timetabling” as a means of maintaining bus access, while not having any newly reclaim stretch of road “constantly blocked with buses”.
“We have to be realistic about the way our city is laid out as we don’t have the same parallel streets as Edinburgh and Glasgow to be able to do what they have.
“Buses play a vital role for many people… I am a bit of a realist and I recognise that if you make a city hard to access, we just won’t have people coming here.”
The council has form in stopping short of blanket pedestrianisation, given when the £3.2m work in nearby Broad Street was completed buses managed to maintain access.
Union Street pedestrianisation: What if it is rejected?
So what would happen if councillors were to make such allowances again? What if full or even partial pedestrianisation is rejected?
Well – despite being pressed – the UK Government has refused to say.
Aberdeen Journals asked the levelling up department to confirm whether Aberdeen City Council would be in line for less money if pedestrianisation was kiboshed at the meeting, where many pieces of the city centre masterplan puzzle are to be discussed.
Further clarity was sought as to whether there were any other conditions attached to the funding grant, which caught the headlines on budget day.
After a day and a half to compose a response, a spokeswoman refused to answer the questions.
Instead, we were told that levelling up fund awards were based on the content of bids applicants had submitted.
We were also pointed to the government’s website, where measures to be taken to monitor levelling up projects could be found.
It reads: “To provide assurances that projects are delivering value for money and to time, the levelling up fund will have a robust, coherent monitoring system.
“This will be built around a common understanding of outputs and outcomes sought through the Fund.
“Monitoring and evaluation of the levelling up fund will involve a combination of national-level evaluation activity with project-level monitoring and evaluation.”
Exact guidance on how the council is meant to monitor the project will be published later, the site said.
An Aberdeen City Council spokeswoman said: “Following the decision of city growth committee tomorrow, officials will engage with the UK Government further including grant conditions regarding levelling up fund.”