Pedestrianisation of Bold Street: Pros & cons of Liverpool planning strategy
In March, new plans to pedestrianise the full length of one of Liverpool’s most popular retail and leisure streets were met with a mixed response. Move Commercial gauges support for the proposals and examines the pros and cons of this radical planning strategy.
Words by Lawrence Saunders
July 1967. The Beatles release ‘All You Need Is Love’, French President Charles de Gaulle declares ‘Long live free Quebec’ in Montreal and in Norwich, London Street becomes the first existing shopping street in the UK to be pedestrianised.
A trio of landmark moments, but only one inspired a revolution.
Within three years of Norwich’s automotive intervention, 20 more UK shopping streets had gone car-free, with even Perth in Australia following this East Anglian example.
Scarcely a week after the Lord Mayor tied a white ribbon across the southern end of London Street to signify its closure to traffic, tables and chairs began to spring up as enterprising restaurateurs and café owners looked to take advantage.
According to Norwich City Council’s progressive city chief planning officer at the time, Alfred Wood, the street quickly began to take on a “continental atmosphere” as shoppers and tourists “paused for refreshment”.
Fast-forward half a century, and creating a similar vibe on its bohemian thoroughfare Bold Street was no doubt on the mind of Liverpool City Council when it brought forwards plans to fully close the street to traffic.
The local authority says it hopes to “boost the emerging café culture and music scene” of the area with its Ropewalks STEP Scheme, which also aims to reduce traffic collisions, improve connections and attract future investment.
If the proposals are approved it’s anticipated phase one of the works will begin in January 2019, and could reach completion by November of the same year.
“I’ve seen how busy the street can be when the road is closed and businesses are allowed to put tables outside their shops – there was a fantastic atmosphere.”
Those who welcomed the plans will likely have fond memories of the various Bold Street festivals which have given locals a flavour of what a fully pedestrianised Bold Street could offer (vehicle access to the lower half of the street has been restricted since 1973).
“I’ve seen how busy the street can be when the road is closed and businesses are allowed to put tables and chairs outside their shops – there was a fantastic atmosphere,” says Steven Rennie, owner of Rennies Arts & Crafts, which has been trading on the upper part of Bold Street for over 35 years.
Whilst Rennie may have been a fan of this free and easy ambiance, he admits to being conflicted over whether he’s behind permanent pedestrianisation.
“Having road access to the shop certainly has its benefits,” he adds. “Customers are able to drive down to the shop to collect their artwork and of course it’s easier for us to load and unload our own van each day.
“My worry is that if the street is pedestrianised it will simply be a wide walkway, which really isn’t necessary and of no real benefit to the traders on the street or the public.”
Another upper Bold Street stakeholder with reservations over the plans is Jennifer Harland, director of ethically minded gift shop Shared Earth – located a few doors up from Rennies.
Although not hostile to the proposals in principle, Harland believes the council’s strategy is firmly geared towards supporting the street’s increasingly dominant bar and restaurant offer.
She’s worried that this approach, coupled with the loss of parking provision for customers if pedestrianisation goes ahead, could negatively impact retailers.
“There’s an awful lot of concerns I have as to whether the shops will thrive under the new plans,” says Harland.
“It’s something that’s upset a lot of the retail businesses on Bold Street.”
In an attempt to appease any concerned traders, Liverpool BID Company held a drop-in event where businesses were given the opportunity to contribute to the plans.
According to Bill Addy, chief executive of the BID, while most traders are supportive of the proposals, some have expressed concerns over “potential disruption to services and accessibility”.
Business trepidation over pedestrianisation is, of course, nothing new. Get it wrong and rising commercial rents can force out smaller independents – paving the way for bigger chains.
“Academic evidence suggests that resistance to such schemes is relatively common amongst business representatives and owners,” says Dr Les Dolega, lecturer in GIS (Geographic Information Science) and retail geography at the University of Liverpool.
“There is some evidence that pedestrianisation may lead to increases in rent, potential loss of business, especially in the initial stage of a scheme, and create some issues related to parking and delivery.”
Though Dr Dolega points to proof that the strategy can have a negative impact, he is personally supportive of the plans for Bold Street.
“In my opinion, revitalisation of this part of the city including pedestrianisation of Bold Street would be very welcome.
“Various empirical studies report a number of benefits including enhancing the public realm, and improving safety and ambience of pedestrianised streets. Some studies also highlight environmental improvements and increased footfall.
“The latter seems to be supported by data showing twice as high footfall on the pedestrianised part of Bold Street.”
“There is some evidence that pedestrianisation may lead to increase in rent and potential loss of business, especially in the initial stage of a scheme.”
The Liverpool professor is keen to stress that there are other possible factors responsible for this footfall disparity, including superior integration with the main shopping destination of Church Street, and proximity to the major train station Liverpool Central.
High pedestrian foot traffic doesn’t necessarily equate to cash in the tills however and, as one agent regularly involved with commercial lets on the street reveals, there are a number of retailers struggling on the currently pedestrianised lower section of Bold Street.
“There are plenty of vacancies and lots of traders not doing well,” says Andreas Anastasiou of Tano Properties.
“This is a reflection of previous high rents and rates along with poor quality operators.
“With the recent rates assessment and rent reductions it has now allowed for new operators to enter the street with confidence of success.”
Anastasiou thinks the street as a whole will profit from a “long overdue uplift,” but he is urging the council to ensure the project is completed to a high standard.
“As always the devil will be in the detail, and it’s important that all street clutter such as lamp posts and sign posts are removed.
“Ideally we will see well-designed canopies and umbrellas which will be permanent and situated through the spine of the street, with vacant units given up for the arts and crafts along with specialist local produce.
“There are numerous examples of pedestrianised streets which have not worked and certain traders on Bold Street prefer that their customers can park outside their premises.
“It’s vitally important that the council and the Liverpool BID Company get the design right, and ensure the changes benefit the street and the city.”