Tuesday 22 January 2019

Controversial car ban set to be shelved after being dubbed 'a total disaster' by city-centre traders

Some businesses in Cork city down 50pc in terms of both footfall and sales

WALKING AWAY: St Patrick’s Street in Cork is reportedly suffering from low footfall since the council restricted access for cars. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/ Provision
WALKING AWAY: St Patrick’s Street in Cork is reportedly suffering from low footfall since the council restricted access for cars. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/ Provision

Ralph Riegel

AN IRISH city is today expected to signal a major climb down over a controversial car ban policy.

Cork City Council has called a special meeting for 6pm tonight amid speculation leading political parties will demand an immediate suspension of the ban on cars on St Patrick's Street.

The move came just 24 hours after traders warned the car ban had driven shoppers out of the city centre with some businesses down 50pc in terms of both footfall and sales.

Other traders warned that the council could face a rates protest unless the move was immediately revised.

Yesterday, senior Cork City Council managers led by Lord Mayor Councillor Tony Fitzgerald met with party leaders and whips over the mounting controversy.

"We have considered in detail the concerns of the people including the traders and, as a result of that, I have decided, at their request, to hold a special public meeting at 6pm tomorrow in City Hall where we will review the city centre strategy," Councillor Fitzgerald said.

More than 200 traders met in a Cork hotel on Wednesday evening and warned they cannot sustain three months of lower footfall and lost sales before the controversial city centre car ban is revised.

Some operators claimed they are down almost 50pc in both trade and footfall since the ban was introduced at Easter.

Cork City Council imposed the ban on cars using the city's main thoroughfare three weeks ago.

It bans all cars from St Patrick's Street between 3pm and 6.30pm daily though buses and emergency vehicles can still use Cork's main street.

Council chiefs, stung by criticism from traders, vowed to review the ban if necessary in July.

However, angry traders warned they cannot sustain three months of lower footfall and reduced sales.

English Market spiced beef trader, Tom Durcan, warned that the aftermath of the traffic ban for city centre business owners has been "a total disaster."

"No business can sustain a decline in footfall and trade of this magnitude," he said.

Idaho Cafe operator, Richard Jacob, said it was vital that City Hall listen carefully to traders about the impact on their businesses.

He said compromises from City Hall in the form of parking and marketing supports were welcome but, if trade was being damaged by the ban, city authorities had to take action.

Councillor Ken O'Flynn said council chiefs needed to accept, given the mounting evidence, that the afternoon car ban on St Patrick's Street might have been a mistake.

"We need people to be big enough to put their hands up and admit they might have got it wrong," he said. City Hall has already moved in a desperate bid to defuse the row following talks with traders and bodies including the Cork Business Association (CBA).

Cork City Council chief executive Ann Doherty unveiled a range of new parking incentives aimed at making it more attractive for people to shop in the city centre.

These ranged from free use of 'park and ride' facilities during specific times and special discounted parking rates at council-owned city centre car parks - all aimed at getting people into the city centre.

"I am so mindful of the challenges that businesses have - I am listening to them," she said.

"What I am asking can we at least give this a reasonable period of time to work?"

"For three months we put in all of these parking incentives - I will also support a promotional campaign to let the citizens know that it is OK to come into the city."

“Cork city centre has a very special offering and remains fully open and accessible as it goes through a period of change, investment and improvement," she said.

"The city council will continue to engage with the business interests and thanks people for their support and patience," she said.

Mr Jacob said everyone in Cork had the same goals.

"We all want the same thing which is a vibrant and busy Cork city centre where people like to shop, socialise and enjoy the unique atmosphere."

But Tom Murphy of Murphy's Menswear warned that one day last week the footfall at their St Patrick Street store was down by more than 50pc

compared to the previous week last year. Trade was down by around 25pc or more.

"I haven't ever seen anything like it," he said.

"I live in Ballinhassig and the commute into town can sometimes take a long time due to traffic. But I drove in one day without a single hold-up. Some people might say that is a good thing but what worries me is whether the car ban is now beginning to have a knock-on effect on the morning trade as well."

The famous clothes shop, during one day last week, had just two customers walk in the front door during three hours of the car ban.

"There is absolutely no doubt but that some people have decided not to come into the city centre to do their shopping - that is what is worrying."

Cork's oldest Chinese restaurant is Tung Sing which boasts a dominant position on St Patrick Street. Frank Lee, who employs almost 30 staff at Tung Sing, warned that some afternoons in the city centre following the car ban being introduced resembled the eerie emptiness which preceded Storm Emma.

"It makes no sense - I don't think traffic was ever a problem on the street over recent years," he said.

"My worry is that the city could become a ghost town.

"It is very difficult to say 'wait and see' when your turnover is falling," he said.

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