Thursday, 4 July 2013

Honest Vision

Musselburgh! East Lothian’s biggest community; the “Honest Toun”; home of Luca’s ice cream, the oldest golf links in the world and the school where Alastair Darling’s eyebrows came of age. It’s also where I live, but please don’t hold that against it.

Like many towns the centre has suffered thanks to a combination of the recession, austerity cuts reducing people’s spending power, increased traffic congestion, and competition for small shops from online retailers and big supermarket chains. Today the Scottish Government has published an independent report on revitalising town centres.

In Musselburgh hundreds of people took part in an exercise a couple of years back to say what they liked and disliked about the town centre, and what they’d like to see happen to improve things. East Lothian Council is at long last consulting on what it grandly calls a strategy - please chip in.

Here are some of the highlights, and my immediate thoughts.

The council documents state:

Among the main issues for Musselburgh town centre that were identified by respondents to the 2011 community consultation were;
-more parking should be created
-the town centre is congested with traffic and alternative routes should be looked at
-improving walking and cycling routes to High Street
-community space should be created for events and activities outside the Town Hall and also outside the Brunton and by the river at Shorthope Street

This demonstrates the competing pressures on town centres. People want more parking, which arguably encourages more traffic, yet they also want less congestion, better walking and cycling routes and community spaces. In my view something has to give, and I’d much rather it was the parking and the congestion. By making the town centre more attractive, safer and less polluted you would encourage walking and cycling. And by creating community spaces with events like markets you would ensure a bit less money disappears from the area through Tesco’s tills and a bit more money recirculates in the local economy.

The presence of the 24 hour Tesco affects the town centre but since it opened the number of vacant premises in the town centre has fallen and footfall in the main streets has remained broadly steady.

This is a brave attempt at gloss by the council. They gave permission to a big supermarket on the edge of the town centre knowing full well it would harm the high street. Councils are frightened to oppose supermarkets as they fear the cost of appeals. Looking at the number of vacant premises and footfall isn’t a fair comparison as the composition of business will have changed. Musselburgh High Street is awash with bookmakers, gambling shops, pawnbrokers, bargain stores and charity shops. I like a bargain and I like a charity shop but for many basic household foods – pasta, rice, etc – you have no choice but to go to Tesco. And while you’re there why not pick up some fruit and veg, bread, milk, electrical goods, clothes and booze? And for all of that you’ll need a car. But hey look, they have free parking and they’re open 24 hours! The High Street may seem just as busy but it has changed - and it's hard to see it as a positive change. 

Musselburgh town centre is very well served by buses but the number of people waiting at the existing bus stops can cause congestion on the pavements.

There are plenty of buses, which begs the question why is there so much traffic congestion from private cars? And also – why aren’t there attractive places to wait for buses given how popular they are? I can imagine motorists being outraged at a suggestion that they couldn’t park within waddling distance of a shop’s front door yet we seem to have no problem with the fact that bus passengers are left to perch in a single grimy bus “shelter”.

One development opportunity outlined in the Strategy Action Plan suggests that East Lothian Council reviews the potential use of the vacant Millhill Stables site off High Street which could be suitable for either housing, employment use or parking.

What an appalling suggestion! Elsewhere the council talks about preserving and making more of the history of the town and yet here they are suggesting turning a row of historic stables into a car park. What an utter lack of vision.

I'm not brave enough to suggest bringing the trams back!
Most towns have a public gathering place where civic ceremonies are held and markets and other commercial activity takes place. These can be a focus for a town and a defining image for a place. Musselburgh town centre does not have such a space at the moment but the area that originally created for that function in the 18thC is still there around the mercat cross, though currently used for parking. A new permanent pedestrian only space could be created at this area with the parking relocated to underused road space towards the Pinkie Pillars. This has the potential to change both the appearance and the image of Musselburgh town centre. It also has the potential to attract more people to the town centre, to be of economic benefit to shops and businesses and to encourage the reuse of empty buildings in the area.

A town square? In front of the town hall? What a radical idea! This is a “no-brainer” but already I’m aware of some local businesses expressing concern at the prospect of car parking being moved a couple of yards down the street. What about all the extra business an active town square would bring? I’m also aware the council are pricing this in the region of £1m, which will almost certainly put the ruling councillors off. Why wait and why such a cost? At the moment it’s a shabby car park – why not simply shut it to cars one Saturday a month and invite stallholders to pitch up? Seriously, what would stop that happening right now?

This indicates that Musselburgh is a town centre that is open for business.

This expression appears in a section relating to opening hours of businesses. It fails to reflect that the only food shops open after 5.30pm are Farmfoods (till 8pm if you need a frozen pizza) and a couple of corner shops (till 10pm) if you need milk, crisps, chocolate or caffeinated energy drinks. Again, the giant Tesco beckons for office workers looking to pick up something for tea on their way home. How about an initiative to encourage the greengrocers and the butchers to stay open late one evening a week?

The John Muir Way coastal walk and National Cycle Route 76 pass through the town.

There are shedloads of cyclists passing through Musselburgh each day. The coast road to North Berwick is very attractive to road cyclists and the NCN route connects with safe, quiet paths along the Esk to Dalkeith and all the way to Penicuik. We lost the bike shop in the High Street opposite Luca’s but have just seen a bike shop opening behind the Brunton. Let’s make the most of potential cycle trade by making it easy to come off the cycle routes and park safely in the High Street – in a new town square at the Tolbooth or at the Brunton. There is a complete lack of cycle parking in the High Street, not that it’s a road you’d want to cycle down!

Musselburgh is a large town but currently has no regular markets or commercial events to draw people in. There has been interest in establishing a farmer’s market but this would ideally require a serviced venue in the town centre. Such events have proven useful draws in other towns, with Haddington Farmer’s Market attracting around 1,000 people each month, increasing footfall in its town centre and offering existing traders potential additional sales.

If only there was a town square in which to hold such an event…

An estimated 30% of traffic in High Street that is passing through.
Mall Avenue/High Street junction, the busiest junction in East Lothian at 25,000 vehicles per day.

Despite these staggering facts there’s no mention of any proposals to reduce traffic. Why not? Instead of tinkering at the edges with relocated bus stops and revised traffic light sequences, why not ban private cars from the High Street? Why not make the whole town centre a 20mph zone? And at the very least why not do a survey of motorists to find out where they’re coming from, where they’re going and what it would take to get them to take the bus, train, walk or cycle?

Air quality is continually monitored in Musselburgh town centre with nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate material (PM10) being the main pollutants. Detailed assessment of NO2 levels was undertaken in 2012 and resulted in additional monitoring at locations on High Street and Bridge Street where dispersion modelling had indicated that exceedences of NO2 had occurred in 2011. If monitoring results indicate it is necessary then an Air Quality Management Area must be declared and an action plan prepared to identify measures to reduce NO2 levels.

"The present image of this area is of one that is devoted to the car."
This is one of the most serious problems facing Musselburgh town centre, yet it’s hard to see so it’s not treated as a high priority. In short, walking down the High Street means you’re breathing in dangerous levels of pollutants. If you’re doing that on a regular basis think of the harm to your health. Monitoring isn’t good enough – we need action, and reducing traffic has to be part of that.

The present image of this area is of one that is devoted to the car.

Glasgow has just launched its new marketing slogan, replacing “Glasgow Smiles Better” and “Scotland With Style”. Now it’s “People Make Glasgow”. I would suggest people also make Musselburgh. Let’s make that real by curbing the town’s devotion to the car and giving the Honest Toun back to the people.

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