Despite a global pandemic, plans to change the built environment in our city centres are being announced constantly. Some of our local authorities are recognising the range of opportunities to develop our city centres and vastly improve our economies by creating the vibrant business, hospitality and retail hubs that people need and want - for which travel infrastructure plays a key role.
The North East Transport Plan, which maps out a region-wide strategy due to be completed in 2035, showcases the promises being made by the North East Combined Authority and The North of Tyne Combined Authority to move to a ‘green, healthy, dynamic and thriving North East’ – but does the document cover elements which will help support a better economy? Arguably not.
The report outlines that ‘Cars are our region’s most used form of transport and car ownership in the North East is increasing, leading to more traffic congestion and vehicle emissions.’ In the report, there isn’t any detail on electronic vehicles and how our transport infrastructure could accommodate having more vehicles in our city centres. Bradley Hall has recently purchased three electric vehicles as part of our fleet – and we have since found out that there are only three charging points in the centre. That, coupled with the average six-month wait to have home chargers fitted showcases that the big push to convert to EV isn’t being supported.
Parking in our region’s capital, Newcastle city centre, has also been a sore subject for our local business community and shoppers alike. It was recently announced that the “Alive After Five” initiative, which gives motorists charge-free access to seven popular city centre car parks after 5pm and has been credited with boosting the Tyneside economy by hundreds of millions of pounds, is expected to be dropped at most of its current locations as council bosses try to put an end to “perverse incentives” for “unnecessary car travel.” – as reported by The Journal. It was also reported that the council is set to spend £50m on pedestrianising Grey Street and Blackett Street – which doesn’t seem well-spent. Surely, spending £50m on more EV charging points would bring down carbon emissions and offer professional services and shoppers more opportunities to make and spend more money within our city centres.
Public transport certainly isn’t providing the answer. I am sure that many of us would appreciate being able to get the bus to work, stay there all day and get the bus home – but that isn’t the way the world works anymore for most. In our current busy lifestyles, where parents need the car on hand for multiple school runs, or for busy workers and business people who need to rush to and from appointments – the aging bus and metro system is simply not an option.
But what does this all mean for our region’s 19,000 local professional service businesses – many of which have team members who need to easily travel to and from meetings and appointments, or for the shopper who needs to buy bulky and heavier goods from their local department store? It is well known that throughout the Covid pandemic Amazon thrived, and now many are conditioned to the ease of ordering a variety of goods online. So what do those who can now do to attract people back into our city centres now it’s ‘business as usual’ – certainly not make parking more difficult.
Sunderland City Council is leading the way on this, with parking options playing a key part in its redevelopment of the city centre via an eye-catching 650 space carpark. They are also working hard to attract people from the outskirts to the city centre through building new bridges and routes in for vehicles.
If our local authorities don’t act accordingly and look at the big picture instead of creating isolated, idealistic and superficial plans, many businesses will exit the city centre for a location with more convenient parking options. The dots must be joined to protect our economy.