by Colin Campbell
ACADEMY Street in Inverness was supposed to be shaping up as something resembling a tree-lined boulevard by now. Instead it’s emerged in a survey as the fourth most polluted street in Scotland. What was that we said about the fallibility of the ever-active “planning and visions” department of Highland Council?
The boulevard concept rolled off the council visionary production line about five years ago. It was accompanied, as all such proposals are, by a pretty picture artist’s drawing off a row of nice little trees going up the centre of a street of distinctive grandeur with people walking all over it and a virtual absence of cars. The transformation seemed ambitious, to put it very mildly.
There is a shock-horror element to the pollution stench report. The margin between fourth and 34th in these rankings is liable to very small indeed. And it’s hard to believe that Academy Street – which is scarcely filled with choking smog – is much worse than many other streets in towns and cities elsewhere in the country.
However, the ranking is what it is. And it’s an ignominious one for a main artery in the city centre.
The council spends too much time coming up with grandiose notions – and pretty picture drawings – which make an optimistic headline or two, but are then forgotten about and disappear. The purpose of this is unclear. The best that can be said for it is that it’s underpinned by good intentions at the time.
The irony is that lower Academy Street, which for a long time was the ugliest and most rundown stretch of the city centre – even worse than Baron Taylors Street – has markedly improved in appearance, largely due to a highly welcome influx of private investment and the creation of commercial enterprises which look like they actually want to attract trade and customers, rather than die a bit more, peeling and neglected, with each passing month.
“Calls for action” – and there have been plenty – proliferate after the pollution ranking but how long they’ll be sustained remains to be soon.
But the blame for “Academy Street’s shame” does not lie solely with the council. They would no doubt like the freedom to turn it into a pedestrianised boulevard, little trees included, but they don’t have it.
People want to drive, seemingly in ever-increasing numbers, and any attempt to deprive them of road space will be met with a ferocious backlash. If the council announced that as a consequence of the pollution ranking they would be putting in place arrangements to block off traffic access to Academy Street within the next two months, regardless of the inconvenience caused, how warmly would it be welcomed?
Critics would be queuing up to brand councillors and officials as eco-friendly lunatics who had a vendetta against drivers and who’d lost all sense of perspective.
In other words, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
There are too many cars pouring into not enough space in Inverness city centre, as is all too obvious and has been for many years, and unless drivers accept alternative arrangements that’s unlikely to change. Better still, if more people tried to break the habit of using cars for even short journeys – easily within walking distance – the pollution alerts would drop dramatically.
Such a change in attitude may eventually come about, but it’ll be a long haul. This year the fourth place ranking of Academy Street looks very bad indeed. Next year given variable weather and wind it might drop out of the shock-horror top 10. But nature, not man, will be the deciding factor in that.
Once the pollution sound and fury – unlike the actual pollution – has dissipated, will anyone still be bold or brave enough to take on the drivers? There’s no-one anywhere who looks a credible threat to them right now.