Council leader pledges car-free York plan ‘won’t be a Lendal Bridge style PR disaster’

2 Jan 2020 @ 8.46 pm
| Transport

York’s deputy council leader went on national radio today to talk about the plan to introduce a car-free city centre.

As YorkMix reported on Tuesday (31 December) City of York Council is committed to stopping private car journeys within the walls by as early as 2023.

The bold plan has gone national. And today one of its architects, Green Party leader and council deputy leader Andy D’Agorne, went on Talk Radio to discuss the plans.

When challenged about the city’s last pedestrianisation project – closing Lendal Bridge in 2013, which was later ruled illegal forcing the council to repay a small fortune in fines to motorists – Cllr D’Agorne said: “That was a previous administration. That was a PR disaster certainly for the city.”

Asked by presenter Mike Graham if this plan “might be going down the same road,” he said:

  • I don’t think so because I think we’ve got more cross-party support this time.

    The specifics came forth through the Labour group, and the administration is Green and Liberal Democrat. Certainly three out of the four parties represented on the city council have supported it.

Better buses, new tram systems

Lendal Bridge during the traffic ban in 2013. Photographs: Richard McDougall
During the interview he was also challenged on York’s air quality, which Mr Graham said had “some of the lowest pollution of any city in Britain”, and on the public transport plans.

Here’s the full interview, which you can listen to here. The questions are by Mike Graham, the answers by Cllr Andy D’Agorne.

What was the process for you, and what is it going to mean for the people who live there?
People in York are very familiar with our footstreets. We have a big area that’s been 30 years pedestrianised between half ten and five during the daytime, so that’s very popular with tourists and residents alike.

We’re wanting to take it a step further, and to reduce the amount of traffic in general, and also to tackle the climate emergency which the council declared in March this year.

We need to make that shift from car-based to sustainable travel, and this is one way of tackling that.

What’s the alternative sustainable travel you’re going to be offering?
Already in York a significant number of people cycle and walk, and use public transport. The difficulty we have is that public transport, most of it goes through the city centre and it gets caught up behind queues of traffic.

So in order to prioritise public transport and make it more attractive, we also want to remove non-essential traffic from the city centre.

But how much of the traffic is non-essential – have you worked that out?
Well, there’s been studies done over the years. I think a fairly significant number. One of the challenges we have is a lot of out-of-town shopping centres with a northern bypass that’s only single carriageway.

When that gets clogged up some people then think it’s quicker to come across the city centre rather than avoiding it around the edge. So we are trying to address that as well.

So a lot of people don’t shop in the city centre already then?
That’s again one of the challenges. There are people who – for the region as a whole – use the out-of-town shopping centres, and people who live in the suburbs that might be nearer than the city centre for them.

But we have a busy tourist economy as well in the city – a much better range of cafes than you would otherwise have for the local population. And literally thousands of listed buildings in the city centre – narrow streets. They’re not designed around the car. We don’t want to be knocking buildings down to provide better access.

So what we need to do is make walking and cycling more attractive, so people are not dodging cars.

What, are the cars driving all over the pavements then?
No. People have to cross – there’s an inner ring road around the centre.

‘Dodging cars’ is a bit of an emotive statement isn’t it? People aren’t dodging cars, they’re just waiting at the traffic lights and then crossing the road, surely?
Yeah, well we also have footstreets where we have challenges in terms of bin lorries, emergency vehicles, market stalls. There’s various people who need to have access. People with Blue Badges can drive quite legally into some areas, where most people are walking round thinking there shouldn’t be any traffic there.

As long as you’ve got shops, restaurants and cafes inside the area which you want to pedestrianise, you’re going to need to have a way of getting the stuff to them, aren’t you? How will that work?
What this proposal is, is all non-essential. We haven’t got any hard-and-fast rules. We’re going to consult with people over the coming year about how it would work, what’s going to be most effective.

This Christmas of course with the national security alerts we did have to have in place some rather big, ugly barriers around the central area to protect the Christmas market. And that sort of thing we are moving on with better facilities rather than the temporary arrangements we had this Christmas.

Anybody going past that barrier had to have a pass. That might be the sort of thing which would be developed over a wider area of the central part of York.

Would you build a load of car parks?
We have lots of car parks. We have six Park&Ride sites which carry millions of passengers. They’re converting this year, incidentally, they’re all going on to electric buses.

How much are you spending on the electric buses?
Well as a council we’ve put £1.6 million towards helping the operators convert. The Park&Ride is the most successful park and ride in the country – it’s run on a commercial basis, a lot of councils subsidise park and ride.

How do you measure that though?
It’s a contract with First Buses.

But how do you make it to be the most efficient park and ride in the country?
It’s the only one that doesn’t have subsidy from the council.

But you’ve just given them £1.6 million.
No, that’s gone to the other operators, not the Park&Ride.

So when you say successful, that means they make a load of money?
They obviously make a profit, yes. Any private bus operator makes a profit.

Well why are you giving them £1.6 million then?
The money is as an incentive for them to to convert their buses to low emission vehicles, because we have a clean air zone coming in this year to tackle the air pollution problems we have in the city – which is largely caused by the congestion.

Although the buses might cause, per vehicle, the biggest pollution, overall there’s a challenge that we have to try and make the air cleaner within our city.

Have you got a situation like we have in London, where we’ve got more buses than we need?
London is unique in the fact that they were never deregulated, if you remember. They were retailed as a central transport for London operation. Everywhere else in the country 30 years ago had privatisation of their bus operations.

What are the shop owners telling you?
As you will with any community, you get shop owners who are very concerned, and quite rightly so, about the competition from out-of-town traders. But then, people go to the out-of-town shops because once they’ve parked their car they’re in a car-free environment .

One of the reasons people go to out-of-town shopping centres is because they can park. Because most city centres now and towns are very difficult to park in, usually because the council have got ridiculously expensive car parking facilities – and if you overstay your welcome by about two minutes you get a parking fine of 80 quid. How much money do you make from parking fines every year?
I couldn’t tell you the actual fines. I know that it’s a significant amount of money in total, income from parking, and that’s again a challenge for the council. We want to promote sustainable transport but on the other hand we depend on income from that to keep the council tax down. If we didn’t have that income we’d either have to be increasing council tax even more, or cutting services.

What about the last time you decided to try and pedestrianise an area? Some time back in 2013 you had to refund all of the fines that you’d charged motorists, didn’t you? That was the ‘Lendal Bridge disaster’ as it was known.
That was a previous administration. That was a PR disaster certainly for the city.

This might be going down the same road, no?
I don’t think so because I think we’ve got more cross-party support this time. The specifics came forth through the Labour group, and the administration is Green and Liberal Democrat. Certainly three out of the four parties represented on the city council have supported it.

You’ve said there’ll be a period of consultation. What does that mean?
At the moment we have a Local Plan – you may be aware that all councils have a development plan. We’re going through the process of an inquiry into our Local Plan which identifies the next 15 years – another 15,000 households…

You’ll have trouble building anything if you can’t get any trucks in there aren’t you?
It’s 15,000 households across the whole city authority. It’s going to potentially create a lot more need to travel. We need to make sure as part of our refresher local transport plan that we have sustainable transport at the top of the agenda for that. Whether that means better buses, new tram systems…

If I’m going to buy a load of groceries in a local supermarket –
Well usually you’ll probably order it and get it delivered online, like a lot of people these days.

Some people do, but not everybody can do that. And a lot of people like to go and pick their own food, rather than have it picked for them by somebody else. And a lot of people like to then put it in their car and drive it home as opposed to try and get on a bus with about 15 different bags.
Within the city centre – I don’t know if you’ve ever been to York –

I’ve been to York, to the National Railway Museum, to Shambles, to the Minster
Then you’ll know Shambles is not the sort of place you have a big supermarket anyhow. The historic streets are very mixed and with the challenges for the high street – as every high street in the country is changing – York has done better than most in terms of retaining one or two places where there’s been quite a bit of turnover – you know, Woollies closing and so on.

Have you got a lot of empty spaces in your shops?
Compared to other similar sized cities we do very well.

But have you got a lot of charity shops and a lot of empty shops?
There are some streets, but certainly no more than any other city. If anything they’re less than other cities because we have a tourist economy that helps to cushion us against that.

And how bad is the air in York, because you’re telling me you have to make it better?
We do. Unfortunately we don’t benefit from government grant funding. Unlike cities like Leeds and Bristol, where they’ve been forced by the European legislation to do something about the dangerous air quality, in York the work has all been done on the basis – well, we’ve had some small government grants over the years – but mostly through working in partnership with bus operators and with other partners.

I’m looking at something from where it says lowest pollution in the country, York is one of the best performing cities – so it doesn’t actually have bad air.
When you say ‘best performing cities’, is that in terms of our plans or…?

No, in terms of your pollution. It’s actually got some of the lowest pollution of any city in Britain.
Well, when you look at statistics it’s always challenging.

You don’t believe the statistics, is that what you’re saying?
No, I believe the statistics but I do know for a fact that we didn’t qualify for funding because we’re below a certain threshold of length of road.

So the air’s pretty good then?
The people who live on that road need healthier air. The whole of the inner ring road is designated a quality management area. If you look at the 2018 – which I think is the most recent – data, the areas on the inner ring road which are still above the nitrogen dioxide World Health Organisation safe limits – 40 micrograms per cubic metre –

According to this, York Fulford Road, nitrogen dioxide 9. York Gillygate, 27, York Heworth Green, 19, York Holgate, 11, York Lawrence Street, 22.
Is that nitrogen dioxide?

Nitrogen dioxide, yeah. That’s what you gave me the figure of 49 wasn’t it?
I’m saying it’s getting better. And that’s partly down to the work that we’ve done over the years to improve things.

So you don’t need to do any more, sounds like you’ve done a great job already.