Shortly before the Covid19 outbreak, discussions within the council had already started on the potential for a ‘car-free’ city centre. Something that had been circulating around the North Laine for years.
Views among residents do vary, some identifying worrying hotspots such as the junction between Trafalgar Street and Blackman Street, and the hazardous nature of Trafalgar Street itself with its two–way traffic and narrow pavements, and the blight of speeding vehicles. And a number of people have come forward to welcome the celebrated ‘café culture’ of Kensington Gardens and Sydney Street, where so many people, whether locals or visitors, enjoy a coffee or bite to eat in the sun. With the Covid19 pandemic, this now seems a distant memory, but with less traffic around at the moment, what better time to properly close off Sydney Street which is meant to be pedestrianised at certain times anyway, but is constantly ignored by motorists, much to the annoyance of those who live there?
The days of bustling streets and congregations of people meeting to share an ice cream or coffee seems like a thing of the past almost everywhere, and North Laine traders are suffering terribly as a result.
However, news this week tells us that around the world shops are starting to open again; Boris Johnson has suggested that retail recovery could take the form of shops with street entrances being allowed to trade (while indoor shopping centres or those without distinct entrances may be asked to remain closed) so long as they maintain some form of social distancing.
This begs the question of how feasible it is for businesses and traders to reopen in the knowledge of a likely drop in customer numbers, and how ‘social distancing’ and queues can be effectively maintained in narrow streets bordered by high volumes of traffic.
We need to reconsider traffic flows in the North Laine to support our traders, but also those living in the area. People have been in touch with us about the welcome peace and quiet as a result of less cars moving around the North Laine. Many have for the first time been able to enjoy safer cycling and walking – something otherwise denied, especially to those whose homes have no garden or outdoor space. Many have reduced their own car journeys, as focus turns to essential vehicle travel and ensuring those with health or care needs can move safely. It’s clear that prioritising vulnerable people – especially disabled blue badge holders, or those who need to take essential travel, can help ensure roads are shared and more accessible to all. Few would like to see the ‘usual’ volume of traffic and the concerns about road safety return.
Less car use in the North Laine, or certainly a restriction to non-essential through-traffic, would undoubtedly be good for the local environment too, with cleaner air and less noise.
Furthermore, research from Living Streets on the ‘Pedestrian Pound,’ shows that pedestrianisation is good for business, and studies show that pedestrians and passing cyclists generate more income for shops than those who arrive and leave by car, as it is easier to attract passing trade. Studies also show that people’s perception of the quality and attractiveness of an area will significantly influence where they choose to shop. With North Laine’s independent, quirky shops, food outlets and cafes, markets and entertainment venues making it one of Brighton’s most important tourist destinations for shoppers looking for something different, this could be a major factor.
If we want this vibrant, much-loved and often visited area of our city to survive and thrive, we must consider how we can best support traders facing the future of ‘socially distanced’ shopping, and especially those whose business entrances sit on otherwise busy streets. We must support residents and traders to be safe. We are urging the council to consider how they can support, and in liaison with the North Laine Community Association and traders, to do more to help. A conversation about limiting car-use in the city-centre is long overdue but there is no time like the present to restart the discussion.
Cllr Lizzie Deane is a Cllr for St Peters’ and North Laine ward.
For more information on the Pedestrian Pound: https://www.livingstreets.org.uk/media/3890/pedestrian-pound-2018.pdf
“It is often assumed that more parking is the answer to struggling high streets, however this is not supported by available research. Studies have linked the quality of public spaces to people’s perceptions of attractiveness of an area, contributing towards their quality of life and influencing where they shop.
Case study evidence suggests that well-planned improvements to public spaces can boost footfall and trading, for example in Piccadilly, Stoke-on-Trent, a £10 million investment to make the area more pedestrian-friendly led to 30% more footfall.”
More recent guidance on the reopening of shops is available from the British Retail Consortium: https://brc.org.uk/media/674528/social-distancing-stores-v1-april-2020.pdf