Calls to shut off controversial new bus gate cameras in Aberdeen have been voted down – despite fears they will make the city centre out of bounds for disabled people.
The bus priority route was enforced on Tuesday, despite thousands petitioning the council to ditch the plans.
But the city’s planning chief David Dunne revealed “frustration and a little nervousness” at the public’s apparent misunderstanding of the new scheme.
Despite banning most vehicles from key sections of Market Street, Guild Street and Bridge with the cameras, he hit back at the suggestion the city centre was any less accessible for blue badge holders.
It came amid fiery clashes at the Town House, as councillors branded the new-look roads “circuitous and labyrinthine” or, more grimly, “a ligature around the neck of our once proud city”.
Can blue badge holders be exempted from Aberdeen bus gate fines?
The charge to suspend enforcement of bus gate penalties was led by Conservative group leader on the council, Ryan Houghton.
He told us: “The measures proposed do not have the backing of the public nor the business community.
“So it is pointless spending vast sums to upgrade the city centre if the messaging being sent out is turning people away.”
Mr Houghton wanted to task officials with exploring how the city could exempt blue badge holders from the cameras’ glare.
But he was met with reluctance, as the law does not allow for such distinctions between non-bus motorists.
“The reality is legislation does not allow us to exempt blue badges from the bus gate, as I understand it,” said Mr Dunne.
“That is because blue badges are about a parking offence whereas going through a bus gate is a moving offence. They are dealt with separately.”
Top planner’s ‘frustration’ at public outcry
But the planning chief did not stop there, unleashing pent up fury at the recent backlash.
He added: “I share the concerns because, to be blunt, the narrative around this is completely inaccurate.
“Part of the design for all of this work was to maintain access to all of the car parks – they are all accessible, even if you bring the Low Emission Zone into it.
“In terms of blue badges, we worked very hard to ensure that everywhere in the area is still accessible to blue badge holders.
“You want to go to Union Square? The train station? The Tivoli? The Green?
“All of those are still accessible to blue badges and indeed there have been additional blue badge spaces put in.
“Taxis are accessible through all of these areas including bus gates.
“The introduction of the bus gate is not about stopping accessibility.
“It is about stopping people who do not need to drive through the area from driving through the area.”
The response prompted Mr Houghton to suggest the pause until the council could “get the narrative and communication right”.
Experimental road rules allowed lighter consultation ahead of introduction of new Aberdeen bus gates
Colleagues gave Mr Dunne a reassuring pat on the shoulder as he was dragged back in front of councillors to answer questions on the controversial scheme.
Labour councillor Sandra Macdonald said her view, and “one that is emerging”, is that the cameras were a “cart before horse type approach”.
Fuelled by a £200,000 Scottish Government grant, they were introduced using experimental traffic regulations (ETRO) that reduce the need for consultation prior to installation.
Over the next 18 months, the city can make minor changes to the scheme before a final review of how the introduction has worked.
Facing a flurry of questions, Mr Dunne yo-yoed around the one microphone shared by a dozen council officials who might be asked to speak.
Did Mr Dunne think using the ETRO was a mistake? No, through a blast of feedback on the Town House PA system.
Mr Dunne, does the city have the money to make changes? Yes, if they are minor.
Could businesses and residents be made aware that they can still give their views and influence change?
Eventually, the bombarded planner warned of “significant impacts” on the city centre if the bus gates were to be removed.
Bus gate plans predate SNP and Lib Dems in charge
Dating back to 2021, the plans for the cameras were drawn up when city planners were still banking on pedestrianisation of the central stretch of Union Street.
The recent multi-million-pound South College Street work is also hoped to mean access can still be maintained to all areas seemingly cut off by the bus priority route.
But Granite Mile pedestrianisation plans were canned by the SNP and Lib Dems when they took over from Labour and the Conservatives in 2022, raising questions about whether all three bus gates were still needed.
Without a pedestrianised Union Street, newly independent Barney Crockett said the bus gates were like “Hamlet without the prince”.
The main concern when the plans were thrown out was keeping the city centre accessible to those with mobility issues.
Mr Houghton urged that their concerns be listened to once again – though officials stated they had worked with the Disability Equity Partnership on the scorned system.
The leading Conservative said: “We had a clear vision with pedestrianisation of the central section of Union Street.
“We’re in a different place now and as a result people, especially those with disabilities, don’t feel welcome in the city centre.
“So let’s pause here. The bus gates don’t need to be in operation and we can give officers time to come up with solutions.
“If there is a political will to do something and the legislation isn’t against it, you can find a way of doing it.
“But if you don’t want to and want to fold your arms and say, ‘that’s the way things are, it doesn’t matter that there’s thousands upon thousands of people petitioning that the city centre is becoming inaccessible,’ then there will be no wonder if the city centre continues to deteriorate.”
Labour councillor Kate Blake was also sceptical.
She said: “If the bus gates are the stick, I’m not sure the carrots are there to get he modal shift to public transport and active travel.”
Minister: Aberdeen’s new bus gates an example for all of Scotland
The latest debate came as the Scottish Government, First Bus and Stagecoach Bluebird hailed the advent of the three bus gates.
A press release stated they would benefit more than 500,000 passengers in the north-east every month.
First Bus Scotland managing director Duncan Cameron said it could lead to more bus services and cheaper tickets, if the scheme is a success.
Transport Minister Fiona Hyslop revealed hopes of similar initiatives across Scotland, in the drive to bolster bus use and reduce car journeys.
Her SNP colleague, city finance convener Alex McLellan, led the defence of the days-old bus gates.
“These measures are an important part of the wider scheme we’re bringing forward to give pedestrians and public transport the priority, ensuring the city centre is a destination.
“We need to view it and the beachfront as a destination, not a through route for domestic cars.
“We are delivering an enhanced city centre, investing in the city centre.
“I think we should be proud of what we are doing to move it forward and really make Aberdeen the best possible place it can be.”