Councillors have voted narrowly to drive ahead with controversial regeneration plans for Academy Street in Inverness.
In doing so, they rejected a bid to hold a two-month trial into the scheme.
Highland Council’s Inverness city committee voted 12-10 last month to proceed with the proposals.
It gave the go-ahead to finalise the proposed design and consult on a traffic regulation order.
A move was made to have that decision rescinded at the full council meeting this week.
An amendment signed by 10 councillors proposed a trial period for the traffic plans and a public referendum on whether they should continue.
However after a lengthy debate councillors voted 35-33, with two abstentions, to back the committee’s approval.
Plans have caused a mixed reaction
The plans, aiming to shift focus from cars to walkers and wheelchair users, have caused widespread debate.
They are part of a wider strategy to make Inverness more welcoming, attractive and healthier.
A new traffic management system would include banning through traffic in Academy Street and adding bus lane sections between the junctions of Union Street and Queensgate to reduce congestion.
Significantly wider footpaths and better pedestrian crossings are envisaged, along with more street and outdoor cafes.
The planned changes have been welcomed by active travel campaigners.
But they have been opposed by many city centre businesses who fear they could lead to closures and job losses.
A report to the meeting raised the potential for reputational risk to the council by not implementing improvements to tackle the climate and ecological emergency.
Councillor Alasdair Christie, who sought the trial period, said he is in favour of improving Academy Street.
But he said there is a perception that consultation on the plans have been insufficient.
Under the proposed scheme, drivers entering the city via Chapel Street and Church Street would not be able to access Queensgate, instead having to turn left on to Post Office Avenue and then left into Academy Street.
Mr Christie said the narrow Post Office Avenue route is “dangerous” and presents a road safety issue.
The plans also present an economic risk to local businesses, he said.
‘We need to take the people with us’
Mr Christie said a trial would assess how traffic displaced from the city centre would impact areas like the Longman and Crown.
“It’s clear to me that there is a lot that can be benefited from improving Academy Street.
“But we need to take the people with us and take the businesses with us.
“We don’t want to create a mess in terms of a ghost town of no businesses.
“We don’t want to make it that people just shoot up to the retail park at every opportunity and don’t spend money in the city centre.”
He said a trial would allow the planned changes to be assessed.
“What is two months to make sure we get the right solution for the capital of the Highlands?”
Councillor Matthew Reiss questioned whether taxpayers’ money was being spent prudently on the scheme.
“The evidence I have managed to glean suggested the verdict is at best not proven.”
He said out of date air pollution figures were used and the proposed Post office Avenue route is “insane”.
Councillor Helen Crawford said roads affected by the plans provides at least £10 million a year in business rates which is spent across the region.
“Traders and businesses in this specific area have told us clearly they are fearing for the viability of their businesses.
“The impact if we don’t listen and get this right, simply be re-ordering how we approach this, could be massive.”
Scheme will create a ‘modern, safe street’
City leader Ian Brown said consultation has been going on for months, including three public engagement sessions.
“What we’re looking to do is remove cars that use Academy Street as a shortcut. They never stop, they are not customers and they are not supporting the city centre.”
He said there will be traffic displacement, but officials are working with residents on mitigation measures.
“If members support the improvements to Academy Street we will have a modern, safe street for pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users, families and children.
“We will have customers on the street wanting to shop and supporting businesses.
“Most members here today know what Academy Street is and most members here don’t shop there. It’s not a place you want to be.”
Green councillor Chris Ballance said Academy Street is dying now.
“Inevitably when people arrive at the train station or bus station, if they see in front of them a street which is pleasant, looks nice and is quiet is inviting, they are far more likely to stay than if they see the current burach that is Academy Street.”
Councillor Ken Gowans urged members to vote for the plans to bring benefit to the city and the Highlands, reduce pollution, traffic flow and health risks associated with poor air quality.
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