The first trial period of pedestrianisation on West Street in Drogheda is to go ahead as planned later this month, despite some councillors in the town airing their concerns over the readiness of Louth County Council to deliver the initiative and a lack of dialogue with traders and other stakeholders in the town centre.
After months of planning, it was announced last month that West Street is to close to all vehicular traffic for three weekends over the next three months as the local authority move to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on retailers and the hospitality sector in the town centre.
Mayor Kevin Callan has said the plans – for what will be a temporary pedestrianisation, essentially a trial run – have the potential to transform the town centre in Drogheda.
West Street will be closed to all vehicular traffic from 11am on Saturday to 10pm on Sunday on the weekends of September 19-20, October 24-26 and a weekend in November. The October weekend will also include the Bank Holiday Monday.
However, with just 12 days to go until the pilot scheme is rolled out in Drogheda, councillors in Drogheda – whilst at pains to show their support for the idea – raised a number of issues at Monday afternoon’s Drogheda Borough Council meeting.
Chief among them were a supposed lack of communication from the local authority to councillors and business owners on West Street, as well as other operators and stakeholders who will be affected by the closure of the street to traffic.
The meeting also heard that some items earmarked for West Street – including parasols for outdoor dining and parklets – will not be in place for the first weekend of the three-weekend pilot, leading some public representatives to question whether the first weekend will have the required impact on public perception.
Senior Engineer for Louth County Council Mark Johnston told the meeting that the council had originally planned to hold the pedestrianisation trials over the summer, before settling for three weekends in September, October and November.
“It’s all part of the ethos in creating space for people to move around outdoors,” he said, confirming also that when the plan was first put on the table, old West Street was the subject of their focus.
The pedestrianised area will include West Street from the Duke Street and Stockwell Street junction to the Tholsel building. Traffic on the eastern end of West Street, Duke Street and Stockwell Street will flow as normal as will traffic on Peter Street and Shop Street.
Mr Johnston said the council had received funding – to the tune of €500,000 from the National Transport Authority, to be shared with Dundalk, – for over 40 new planters that will be strategically placed around West Street, as well as approximately 20 parasols and synthetic grass.
He told the meeting that the local authority had received 60 objections to the pedestrianisation trial, focusing on issues such as traffic, a decrease in parking spaces, the movement of disabled bays and town bus services having to be rerouted.
“It’s fair to say there is a good number resisting any period of pedestrianisation. We felt we could overcome any difficulties that the traders were coming with,” he said. “All the measures may not be in place for the first weekend, which is a bit of a drawback for us.”
Frank Pentony, the local authority’s Director of Services for Infrastructure, said that the facilitating of buskers and musicians – part of the original idea for the pedestrianisation – was off the table for now, with the council not wanting to encourage large gatherings of people in one area.
“We’ve had to put them on the backburner because of Covid restrictions,” he said of the shelving of music, for now. “You’ll never know if it’s going to work unless you have the trial. It’s worthwhile having a go. All we’re committing to at the moment is three weekends.”
Independent councillor Paddy McQuillan said the decision to pull the plug of allowing buskers onto West Street was the correct idea. “Big gatherings are dangerous. We need to have a handle on the Covid-19 end. We don’t want an outbreak coming from this,” he said.
Cllr McQuillan also refuted suggestions the pedestrianisation was in some way comparable to the Fleadh Cheoil, which took place in Drogheda in 2018 and 2019.
“We need to stop talking about the Fleadh Cheoil. We’re not trying to create that. We’re not throwing a party. This is about something sustainable for the future of our town. We’re not inviting 120,000 people onto the town. It’s a space in the middle of the town for our citizens to move around freely.”
Sinn Féin councillor Joanna Byrne bemoaned the poor communication from the local authority and said she would prefer the trial was conducted over a longer period of time, as opposed to three separate weekends.
“I thought this was happening for the month of August, that was the last I heard of it. I received no response from my queries until after a press release went out to the public in late August. I can understand why there’s a level of resistance to it,” she said on Monday.
“The Taxi Federation have issues. A conversation could have been had with them to appease them. Disability access and what’s happening to the buses haven’t been communicated back to the members. I think it would have been more beneficial to do it over a block of time as originally teased out, rather than three separate weekends over three months.”
Her party colleague Tom Cunningham felt the rollout had been rushed, despite it’s delay from the original summer target date. “The stakeholders are not just of West Street. Pedestrianisation on one street affects the whole town. There’s no communication. Of course there’s going to be bad feeling. I feel this has been rushed.”
“I was totally oblivious to the vocal opposition to this,” Labour Cllr Michelle Hall said. “I’m very worried measures will not be ready for September 19. I think it we’re going to do it, everything should be in place. You need the positives there at the start. If we have a bad weekend, it will be a washout like the Christmas Festival. We don’t need that negativity.”
Cllr Hall suggested postponing the trial for one month, until all of the parasols and parklets had been acquired and could be provided. Cllr Pio Smith suggested that the pilot could be postponed until the Spring of 2021.
Fianna Fáil Cllr James Byrne said: “I believed such an initiative could be brought to fruition by July/August time, perhaps in my naivety. I’m concerned by the dilution of the impact it might have, with the potential weather concerns. There wasn’t full and proper dialogue. We need to up our game on consultation.”
Cllr Eileen Tully aired her support for the pilot, saying “West Street in the last 10 years has died with very little traffic on it but turning it into a pedestrianised area, it will work out very well” while Cllr Declan Power added, “This is happening all over the country, all over Europe. We always seem to come in on the tail end of things.
However, he aired a note of caution for the first weekend, with all street furniture not yet in place. “Not having the bells-and-whistles may prove problematic going forward.”
Louth County Council’s Paddy Donnelly said there needed to be “gradual feed-in.”
“We don’t want to make an investment and then find it’s not working. Pilot projects are what we’re used to doing in the council. The Gate was a trial at one stage. It was going to be the end of civilisation as we knew it. Now the Gate is closed and nobody gives it a second thought,” he said.
Mayor Kevin Callan told the meeting: “To not do it, makes no sense whatsoever. It’s going to be messy. There’s a fear out there. If it doesn’t work, I’ll be the first one to say it doesn’t work. If we don’t try it, we’ll never know. We owe it to the people of the town to give them something different.”