Call for cars to be allowed back on St Stephens Street and Castle Meadow
- Credit: Brittany Woodman/Norfolk Conservatives
A call has been made for cars to once again be allowed to use city centre streets where they have been banned - despite millions of pounds having been spent to remove them.
Bev Spratt, Conservative county councillor, said shops in Norwich had suffered because of years of focus on putting in bus lanes and cycle lanes - and it was time to let cars back on to St Stephens Street and Castle Meadow.
But his call was criticised, with opponents saying turning back the clock would undo good work to encourage people to swap their cars for buses and bicycles - and, contrary to Mr Spratt's claim, the city centre is thriving.
The top officer at Mr Spratt's own council disagreed with him and said getting people out of their own cars and on to public transport was the way forward. He said footfall in Norwich was going up, even with the roadworks the city has seen in recent years.
Mr Spratt's comments came against a backdrop where management of roads in Norwich is passing from the city council to the county council, giving county councillors sway over what does or does not happen in the city - a move which has caused political friction.
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Speaking at a meeting of the county council's infrastructure and development select committee, Mr Spratt, who represents West Depwade, said: 'The serious thing for me is that the retail businesses in Norwich are suffering through years of bus lanes and cycle lanes and what have you. Unfortunately, when I was in Norwich yesterday, the big shops are empty.
'We must do every possible thing to open Norwich up for the people who want to get into retail areas in their cars and buy stuff at the shops. I'd like to see Castle Meadow opened up and St Stephens opened - all the big roads into Norwich.'
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But Tom McCabe, head of paid service at County Hall and director of community and environmental services, said Mr Spratt could 'fall out with him' over his response. He said it has been a positive move to encourage people to switch from cars to buses.
He said: 'We are not going to see metros or light railway in my lifetime, so buses are the best mode for getting large numbers of people in to the city centre to keep it vibrant. We have been very successful in that and the footfall in Norwich, even in recent years with all the roadworks, has gone up and has bucked the national trend.'
Mr McCabe said encouraging more car sharing - which the council has bid for money from the government to do - would improve the capacity on the city's roads.
Labour county councillor Danny Douglas, who represents Norwich's Mancroft division, said: 'While there are challenges, Norwich city centre is great. We have a success story in the city centre and that's down to the hard work that has been done.'
But Mr Spratt's Conservative colleagues Barry Stone, who represents Loddon, and Stuart Clancy, who represents Taverham, said Mr Spratt had a point. Mr Stone said it was not realistic to expect people from rural areas to catch a bus to get into Norwich.
He said: 'Unfortunately, in most of our rural areas, bus services are declining. If you asked people there to catch a bus, they'd say they haven't seen one for years.' And Mr Clancy said: 'There are people in rural areas with spending power and we need them in retail shops in the city. Shoppers who want to travel by car is the reality of living in a rural part of Norfolk.
'We shouldn't have social engineering stopping people living where they want to and the reality is that car users still need to be encouraged to use Norwich to shop.
'It's a balancing act between not congesting Norwich and polluting the air, but supporting the economy and those who rely on it for their jobs.'
Earlier this year, Mike Stonard, Norwich City Council cabinet member for sustainable and inclusive growth, said 'We are seeing footfall rising and we've seen Primark has made a major investment in the city centre, while we're seeing retail vacancies drop, which is great.
'We must be doing something right. What we are doing right is taking out the dirty, polluting, smelly traffic, making the city centre a much more pleasant place to be.'
Norwich City Council's annual report into vacancy rates and changes of shop types in the city centre showed the percentage of vacant units fell from 10.8pc in 2018 to 10.1pc in 2019, compared to Britain's average annual rate of 13pc.
And the amount of vacant available floorspace in the city centre as whole has gone to 5.5pc from the 2018 figure of 7.3pc, which City Hall officers said is 'significantly better' than when it was as high as 12.4pc in 2010.
General traffic has been banned from St Stephens Street since November 2014, while it was stopped from using Castle Meadow in 1999.
Norfolk County Council is waiting to hear from the government over a bid for millions more pounds to make changes to transport in and around Norwich.