How Cowgate's traders are fighting against proposed highway changes

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Cowgate in Peterborough - the scene of a dispute between traders and Peterborough City Council. Photo: John Baker

As retailers, restaurants, pubs and businesses move forward following the latest round of lockdown relaxation, public bodies have been provided with a lump sum from central government for improving access in cities for cyclists and pedestrians across the country. 

The combined authority of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough has approved a spend of £2,875,000, of which £575,000 must be spent within eight weeks in June and July on rapid, pilot upgrades to get more people walking and cycling

The aim is to create safer, socially-distanced environments in the county, and in Peterborough the council is looking into installing temporary pop-up interventions to promote active travel, walking and cycling - starting with a pop-up cycle lane on Crescent Bridge, which has been well-received. 

For Cowgate a letter has been sent to each trader by Peterborough Highway Services, with a view to gaining their opinion on a triple-tier of proposed changes for the roads.

Externally at least the ideas are popular. A recent poll in Peterborough Matters found that 75% of those asked support the proposal.

But those changes have been greeted with barriers of a different kind from those directly affected - with traders saying they will kill business on the street completely if implemented, and vehicles passing by and/or parking is restricted.

The traders have been asked to submit their feedback by mid-day today on three phased proposals:

  • Phase One will see the temporary closure of parking bays on the northern side of

    Cowgate

    - the 'Drapers' side - which would see barriers preventing the spaces being used and creating a wider footpath, allowing safer social distancing. The layout would remain on the southern side. 
  • Phase Two will see a temporary closure of Cross Street, King Street and

    Cowgate

    to through traffic, with delivery vehicles instead passing along Long Causeway to the three streets. Access to private car parks would be retained, but hours would be limited to minimise traffic. For those for whom delivery is integral, car parking spaces on

    Priestgate

    , near

    Priestgate

    House, would be reallocated to loading bays.
  • The third phase is an option in the future to look into permanent

    pedestrianisation

    on

    Cowgate

    and King Street, with access retained for private car parks and deliveries. This would allow "wider footpaths and spaces to be used for functions such as alfresco-style outdoor dining".

But the proposals have met with resistance, with traders dismayed at the small time frame - the council said it is looking to implement phase one from four weeks of the date of the letter, which was sent on June 29, and phase two within eight weeks. 

The rumpus has even led to a changing of the guard of the Cowgate Traders Association, with Chris Fuller of Pawnbrokers Gold and Gems Jewellers quitting after 18 months in the role of chairman.

It has now been taken over in an acting capacity by Stephen Loasby, who is a director of Kall Kwik business design and print, and has rallied traders by writing to them personally.

Mr Loasby said that the letter finalised his decision to take on the acting role as it clarified the exact process  - and meant he "couldn't live with himself"  if he did not act.

He said: "If these proposals went through to phase three, it would take my business down. Under normal trading conditions we operate 24/7 because we need to deliver to customers. Engineers come at 10pm, servicing presses, and so on.

"The overwhelming response here is negative. A handful are for it. There are over 50 businesses affected on the streets, a mixture of retail and offices, and they are desperate about it.

"The main crippling part would be phase two, allowing all access through Cathedral Square. We've been adding it up but we reckon there are 98 company car parking spaces behind Cowgate, King Street, and Cross Street used by those businesses. 

"The sting is that they would 'seek to limit hours' - no-one would be able to get through at all times of the day.

"Under phase one the plans would halve loading bays and reduce car parking bays from 12 to 5, so all that would happen is that King Street would get blocked. From a general point of view there is still a proportion of customers who like to collect; sometimes heavy, bulky items that they can't walk with, from our loading bay.

"The idea that hundreds of cars and 30-40 tonne lorries passing through Cathedral Square is remotely preferable to coming through Cross Street is preposterous."

Mr Loasby said that he has measured the north side footpath's width at 2.6 metres, which will allow distancing, so making it 5 metres does not make sense.

He added that traders pay premiums to lease key locations such as these - and should businesses move out the changes would make it very difficult to find willing tenants to move in.

Another critic of the plan is Peter Fierro of the Pizza Parlour, who said: "They have wanted to gentrify this street historically but this is a unique street, one of the few where there is a real diversity of shopfronts

"So why on Earth would you want to destroy that? Because I can tell you now that if this happens most businesses here will suffer so much that they'll have to pack up.

"I have to have deliveries through the day and you can't plan that. Stephen has them, the pub has them - all of us rely on them. 

"It's lunacy. They will be moving traffic to an existing pedestrian area where people have got used to walking and children are used to running around.

"And from a humanitarian point of view this is where taxis drop off disabled people for Queensgate - what would happen then? This will strangle the area and people will just shop elsewhere." 

Paul Morarji from Niro Fashion said: "It would be the stupidest idea, whoever thought of making it pedestrian only. Trade will be massively affected if people can't park or drive there and it's definitely not thought of. I think the council just thinks it has to do something but should put more effort in planning and doing homework."

However, Mr Fuller is a fan of the proposal and described the situation as 'kicking off' when the idea first arose.

At 73, with his lease up in two years, he has decided not to continue in the role in the midst of the ongoing issues along the street, and instead instantly resigned from the post.

Chris Fuller has given up his role as head of Cowgate Traders' Association. Photo: John Baker

"It's a beautiful area and some of the building designs are beautiful. Peterborough needs it. 

"I've tried so hard to get it done before and it's a very sad situation. We have a virus and traders want the space, the ambience, the customers - and to want Peterborough to have something nice. So I really don't understand why traders would contact others to make a fuss.

"The council could have given people more time to discuss it, but we have a pandemic so they've brought it forward. I'm not their best believer, but in this instance what the council was doing was really good."

Cabinet Member for Waste, Street Scene and the Environment Cllr Marco Cereste, who proposed the ideas, said that he believes that much of the resistance has arisen because traders initially assumed that the council was starting with pedestrianisation, rather than looking at a later date. 

He is aware a lack of parking could be detrimental to traders, but said that could apply to many other businesses in the centre as well, and that a number of options such as the disabled parking spaces would be relocated under the measures.

He added that it was 'not in the city's interest' to not have safety measures in place, and did not want another lockdown to be imposed as we have seen in Leicester. 

He said of the proposals: "The idea is to restrict the parking so we can create a proper, in-and-out system for pedestrians to respect social distancing.

"The pavements are narrow and a real problem for those queueing out of a shop, if they want to maintain distancing. There's no way they can stand apart.

"We have suggested other measures that they've blocked - I hope we don't run out of money before they make their minds up, because then we do have a problem. It's not some unlimited pot.

Cowgate in Peterborough from Queensgate roundabout. Photo: John Baker