Council can’t get away with plan to keep city centre a barrier strewn mess

by Colin Campbell

THE vaccination rollout north of the border is finally catching up with the pace at which people elsewhere in the UK are getting the jab, infection rates are falling rapidly and will continue doing so, and there’s even a hint of spring in the air now that a long spell of harsh winter weather has come to an end.

City centre needs to be sorted out well before summer.

Things in this dreadful year long saga are clearly going in the right direction and at last there are grounds for an outbreak of very welcome optimism.

But despite the rollout of good news, the message from various quarters seems to be, don’t get too cheerful, nothing much is going to change.

The principal voice we are forced to pay attention to, of course belongs to Queen Nicola. When if ever are we going to escape from the scowling dominance of the all-powerful Mother of the Nation?

From her podium on her daily BBC TV show, she warns that holidays abroad for the foreseeable future are pretty much out of the question. Given the international complexities involved, that may be partly understandable. But she has gone even further by telling people not to bank on a holiday in Scotland either.

Maybe she wants to keep attention focused on her declarations for political reasons at least until the May elections, or maybe she can’t bear the thought of loosening her grip on the unprecedented power she’s had for the past 12 months.

But despite hopes of much better times ahead, the nationalists’ grievance-monger in chief is certainly not emerging as an early ray of sunshine.

It’s still illegal for someone in Perth who’s been vaccinated to travel to visit a relative in Inverness who’s been vaccinated. Is that kind of ludicrous situation going to change anytime soon? Answers are there none.

And here in Inverness, elements within the council have signed up to the nothing’s going to change agenda as well.

The empty city centre looks a mess with unsightly traffic barriers and bollards snaking round the precinct and council officials want it to stay that way. They are proposing that the tangle of pavement widening measures and awkwardly hazardous cycling lanes should remain in place permanently.

These officials are in the fortunate position of taking a lofty overview of how the city centre should look in future while being comfortably detached from reality.

None of them have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and their salaries have flowed into their bank accounts uninterrupted.

Their situation is the polar opposite of city centre businesses struggling to survive and staff fearing they may have no jobs to go back to.

The priority above all else should be making the centre look an attractive and congenial place to visit when the latest and surely the last lockdown ends. And right now it looks anything but.

It’s not clear whether officials just want these clumsy barriers to remain such a disagreeably dominant feature of the centre or whether they want pavement widening work to be carried out. The former is unacceptable and the latter, given the disruption it would cause, would be even worse.

It may seem a fairly remote prospect in mid-February but despite the dismal warnings from the Queen on high it’s very likely that Inverness could see an influx of very welcome tourists this summer. By then the vaccination programme will be far advanced and people across the country will be eager if not desperate to get a holiday. Inverness and the Highlands has huge staycation potential.

So for local people and holidaymakers alike the centre should be transformed into an appealing place to visit rather than still be mired in the emergency clutter caused by the coronavirus.

And by June and July the situation will have been changed dramatically by the vaccination programme. The vast majority will have have been vaccinated and the need for social distancing in so called “spaces for people”  will be greatly reduced.

The risk of catching the virus walking around in the open air was utterly miniscule last summer. With vaccination widespread only those suffering from the most acute paranoia will still fear walking along a city centre street.

So the mess of barriers and those unused cycle lane spaces should be swept away. Get back to normal, as near as possible, and bring trade into the shops again.

Rather than planning a hopelessly mistimed experiment for some kind of new look city centre council officials should be targeting the other unsightly mess around the centre, countless decks of scaffolding in almost every city street.

When the shops reopened last June the tangled tiers of it in High Street were due, I was told, to be taken down after work was complete in around eight weeks. They’re still there. If the barriers are bad, the piles of scaffolding around every corner are even worse. That needs attention and work when it resumes needs to be speeded up.

A poll by the Inverness Courier has found overwhelming support for getting rid of the barriers. Councillors should pay attention and see why people feel that way, with their own eyes.

By summer visitors will be flooding in and the virus threat should be in headlong retreat. And by then the last remnants of the city centre mess that have been such an ugly element of it should be gone.

Not even Queen Nicola can keep people locked up forever. Things are going to change, and soon.

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