Controversial plans to regenerate Academy Street remain on track after Inverness councillors narrowly voted to carry on with the scheme.
A crunch meeting of the Inverness city committee today was faced with deciding whether to progress plans to the next stage or not.
Failure to do so could have seen the scheme scrapped entirely – with bollards currently used to widen pavements removed immediately.
Inverness Ness-side councillor Alasdair Christie proposed an alternative plan that would have implemented a trial period for the changes.
Under his amendment, the people of the city would then participate in a referendum to determine whether or not it should continue.
It won some support in the Highland Council chamber, but was ultimately beaten by 12 votes to 10.
Council officers will now finalise the proposed design and consult on a traffic regulation order.
Council officers faced ‘vitriolic’ abuse over Academy Street plan
The Highland capital and its council representatives have been split on this issue for some time.
Today’s meeting contained the usual number of fiery exchanges and we heard that council officers have been accused of making up figures, telling lies and been subject to “vitriolic” abuse during the consultation period.
One councillor even remarked that she’d been told by a constituent that the entire scheme was part of a huge conspiracy theory cooked up by the United Nations to control the population after Covid.
Everyone seems to be in agreement that Academy Street needs to change. But how exactly to do that is what is causing the fury.
On one side, reducing the number of cars passing through from around 9,000 to fewer than 2,000 is seen as making it a more welcoming space for walking, wheeling and cycling.
On the other side, opponents believe it will have a hugely detrimental effect on city centre businesses that will drive more people to out-of-town retail parks.
‘We need to take time to do this properly’
Councillor Christie led the charge for those not in favour of progressing the plan today.
He said: “We need to take time to do this properly. The council administration’s view seems to be that you should buy a house, commit to it and then do the survey afterwards.
“This proposal has everything the wrong way around.”
Inverness Millburn councillor Isabelle Mackenzie said there had not been enough consultation about the plans and it reminded her of the “Raigmore bus gate debacle”.
She added: “Concerns against this plan are significant and valid. And claims that this scheme will curtail pollution are questionable.
“Businesses in the city centre require traffic for more than just deliveries. Business owners in touch with customers understand their needs better than council officers.”
‘No-one is proud of Academy Street, it’s now or never’
On the other side, Aird and Loch Ness councillor Chris Ballance said putting in a trial period would cause more unnecessary delay.
He said: “Everyone is agreed that Academy Street needs change. No one is proud of it.
“If we wait for 100% agreement we will be waiting forever. It’s now or never.”
Inverness South councillor Ken Gowans said discussions about the need to improve Academy Street had been going on for nearly a decade.
Although the changes would cause some disruption, he felt it would be more than worth it.
Councillor Gowans said: “Clearly there is no gain without some pain. We are all very aware that there will be disruption during the works.
“But we need to compete with other urban centres, we cannot afford to fall behind.
“This proposal this will not break the city, this will make the city.”
What happens now?
Today’s vote means that council officers will now finalise the proposed design.
There will be a consultation on a traffic regulation order and an economic impact assessment will be carried out.
Further discussions will take place and councillors will be asked to approve the plans at a later stage.
Once complete, several traffic restrictions will be introduced in the city centre.
Cars coming from Millburn Road will have to turn left into Union Street and emerge from Queensgate.
They cannnot turn left into Academy Street, but can turn right or continue along Strothers Lane.
Vehicles approaching from Chapel Street have to turn left when they reach Strothers Lane.
Drivers coming into the city via Chapel Street and Church Street would not be able to access Queensgate, instead having to turn left on to Post Office Lane and then left into Academy Street.
Scrapping plans could cause ‘reputational risk’
Highland Council earlier warned that scrapping the plans at this stage had the potential to cause “reputational risk”.
The local authority hosted its latest consultation meeting on the plans in July with business, tourism, transport and active travel groups.
Feedback from 894 comments showed 371 were positive or mostly positive and 223 were negative or mostly negative.
However, the latest survey by Inverness BID showed 80% of businesses were either opposed or strongly opposed to the plan. Just over 12% in favour or strongly in favour.
For more updates and stories from Inverness, join our local Facebook group.