Ambitious plans to pedestrianise parts of Leeds city centre must be approached with caution, or risk adding to the very problems they are trying to eradicate.
That was the view of one opposition politician as Leeds councillors rubber-stamped the next phase of a 20-year rail, road and public realm strategy for the city.
As reported in the YEP last week, City Square could be permanently closed to general traffic as part of plans to create a “world-class gateway” to Yorkshire’s unofficial capital.
Development work is already under way on a package of measures designed to make the landmark square a virtual traffic-free zone by 2021.
The scheme would be financed by the £1.6bn West Yorkshire Plus Transport Fund, managed by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.
It is all part of a wider masterplan which includes the closure of Neville Street to traffic, a major overhaul for New Briggate and large-scale redesigns of the city’s public realms.
City bosses said earlier they were keen to move away from Leeds’s “outdated and restrictive” existing road network and the ‘motorway city’ tag of the 1970s.
However at a meeting of Leeds City Council’s executive board yesterday, Tory councillor John Procter, deputy leader of the main opposition group, said that - though he welcomed the ambition of creating and maintaining a “vibrant” city - to go about it by closing a series of roads is absolutely not the right way” to do it.
He urged extra caution in relation to the possible knock on effects of the City Square pedestrianisation of causing a “funnel” and pushing traffic toward the A58 inner ring road.
He said: “Pushing traffic out of the city centre may sound good on paper, but when you look at how it’s actually going to affect people’s day to day lives moving around the city...that’s a whole other set of issues.
“I give unqualified support to the public realm [plans] but no support whatsoever to the closing of chunks of roads.”
Councillor Richard Lewis, Leeds City Council’s executive board member for regeneration, transport, and planning, insisted that “closing a lot of streets...isn’t the proposal here at all”.
“It is possible to do things in the city that aren’t necessarily expensive but can be incredibly effective nonetheless,” he told colleagues.
“City Square is already half empty of cars. Many other streets in the city centre are not well used [by traffic].
“We have roads like Neville Street which are utterly horrible for people to walk or drive down.
“We really have to think about using what we have got in [the best] way.
“I’m not saying that everything here will deliver an earthly paradise, but some of it is already delivering improvements.”
He added that the overall aim of the proposals was to create “a prosperous Leeds, a liveable Leeds, a healthy Leeds and a sustainable Leeds”.
“It’s about creating a different kind of city,” he said.
Speaking of the concerns about the inner ring road, he acknowledged that “this is a road that’s 50 years old” and it was in need of a wholesale review.
“Every time we have to do something to it, it seems to be more radical and more expensive,” he said.
“And we do have to think about ‘does it continue to serve the purpose that it has [served] for so many years so well?’
“That might not necessarily be about closure, but about changing its use.
“That is a debate you have to have because the city is so dependent on the road.”
Other long-term plans being considered for inclusion in Leeds City Council’s long term transport and design vision for the city centre include:
>Proposals to revitalise New Briggate into a vibrant urban village. This could include a revamp for Leeds Grand Theatre and better links to the Arena quarter and Victoria Gate.
>Development of new park and ride facilities.
>Selling off the pay and display car park at Cross Belgrave Street and other council assets for “regeneration opportunities”.
>Inviting innovative designs to improve public spaces and areas like the vibrant Greek Street quarter.