Nothing to do with football for once: it’s purely an accident that I ended up with @lord_palmerston for a Twitter handle and find myself commenting on events in the road which is named after him.
However I also remember back to the late 70s when buses were still allowed to use the northern half of Palmerston Road, which was otherwise pedestrianised. Every now and again someone would forget to look and would get knocked over by a bus coming down the narrow strip of roadway left open for them. Eventually the buses were diverted around Portland Road and the precinct closed to traffic completely.
Then, Palmerston Road throughout its length was a vibrant centre with a diversity of retailers and offer. Cookery shops, furniture shops, an excellent bookshop, a bakers, a British Gas showroom, a Comet, an old-fashioned grocers, a fruiterers, a bookmaker, a musical instrument shop, a few restaurants and a nightclub. Already there in the late 70s were Akram Stores, then nearer the Common end of the road. They are, I think, the only remaining presence from that time in the road apart from major national retailers. We’ll come back to them.
Since that time so much has changed. It has become virtually impossible for independent retailers to survive next to national operators in the same field, other retail areas have stolen customers, “bricks and mortar” businesses are everywhere undermined by online competition. So the onus is on cities and their councils to make the environment attractive to shoppers. Where possible, they seek to combine a range of activities, including eating and drinking, to create a streetscape that is vibrant from morning to late at night.
There is a national scheme recognizing these efforts which goes by the rather daft name of “Purple Flag”. We are often confronted by what seems to be nonsense in official papers and so when I encountered the term for the first time in “the Cabinet Member for Community Safety was appointed by the Cabinet as Purple Flag Champion” it brought me endless joy. It’s customary on these occasions to say that “Purple Flag Champion” sounds like it ought to be the title of a song by Mark E Smith, rather than an honour appended to a civic dignitary. However we rarely have reason to place “dignity” in the same breath as “dignitary” when dealing with local government in Portsmouth.
I’ll deal properly with Purple Flag and other instances of local government bloat (another great unrecorded Fall track) another time. Suffice it to say for now that Portsmouth City Council is under pressure to maintain Southsea’s position as a centre under heavy competition with Gunwharf and Commercial Rd, and indeed the position of the whole city against Southampton, Chichester, Brighton and Guildford. That is how we arrived at the disastrous pedestrianisation of the southern half of Palmerston Road.
At the fractious public meeting held last night at St Jude’s, council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson spoke from the floor to explain that “we think pedestrianisation works for retailers”. He is a career politician rather than a retailer, and sadly he left the meeting before I could put some points to him on the nature of retailing and location. It just isn’t true that pedestrianisation works equally well for all retailers.
Pedestrianisation is great for a parade of large shops with long customer dwell-times, clusters of fashion retailers, or for narrow streets of small shops like the Lanes in Brighton. Most large-store pedestrianised areas derive most of their footfall from fashion retailing. That should work in the northern half of Palmerston Road, although there are a distressing number of empty units. Were it not for Debenhams (who would get out if they could redevelop the site), Knight & Lee (who will close if Northern Quarter ever happens) and Waitrose “anchoring” the area, it would be rather unattractive to national retailers and their customers. The northern half of Palmerston Road faces some huge challenges in the next decade if it is going to retain major retailers and customers to shop in them. But it is undoubtedly right that it is pedestrianised given the size of store and type of retailer operating there now.
So what about the southern half? It was paved over after a rushed and botched consultation process which has distorted things for traders and caused traffic mayhem in the surrounding area. At the meeting last night we had the excuse from the council officers that the Palmerston Road South project had been overseen by Mike Hancock and his regeneration squad. Since there was no council presence from that department, they were unable to explain the decisions taken in Palmerston Road, totally undoing the point of having it on the agenda. The excuse was trotted out by the officers and the politicians present that the problems of traffic away from Palmerston Road were the responsibility of the people who closed Palmerston Road and caused all the bloody trouble in the first place, and those people couldn’t be there last night.
We are supposed to accept that one bit of the council can spend half a million on something and screw up several aspects of life in the city because they didn’t properly consult their colleagues on another floor of the Civic Offices or the people living in the area affected. It is a scandal of the most hideous proportions, one caused by a Lib Dem councillor/MP who can’t get things right in a ward represented by three other Lib Dems sitting in a council led by yet another Lib Dem. What the hell do Lib Dems talk about in their party meetings? There was a lot of regret from David Williams (CEO of the City Council) at the bad temper of the meeting, but it should have been blindingly obvious that it’s better to have the difficult meetings first and spend the money afterwards, rather than the other way round.
The meeting had originally been called to discuss traffic calming measures around Lennox Road South, which has for years borne an unreasonable amount of traffic heading to and from the seafront. The council has been trying to resolve the problem since 2009, but it took a while for the road to be “declassified” from a B-road by the Secretary of State for Transport. Until that was done, the council could do little. A consultation began with three options for calming traffic, and one of “do nothing”.
So the meeting kicked off with David Williams introducing Barry Rawlings, the council’s senior engineer (who also has to carry the can for the shambles involving traffic lights around the city). He made some headway explaining the options before a stream of interruptions, points, and questions from residents. From that point on, the meeting was more or less out of control. Williams failed completely to chair the meeting in any sense – perhaps it was a deliberate plan to allow residents to blow their top, but it was hardly edifying and doesn’t do anything to inspire confidence in the council’s officers.
We soon had a hilarious interjection from a rather tired and emotional man, blaming “Tony” Hancock for pushing through the pedestrianisation scheme “because he’s got shares in Wetherspoon’s”. The gentleman was sat near to Gerald Vernon-Jackson who intervened a few times without being any more coherent, though he of course was perfectly sober. Councillors Andrewes and Mason kept shtum throughout, not protesting even when a resident of Auckland Road got up and made a five-minute diatribe against the incompetence of Hancock and his colleagues (I thought it remarkable that Williams did not call the meeting to order and from that point on he had no control). All the politicians hid as soon as they could do so inconspicuously, reappearing at the end when most of the voters had gone home in a bad mood.
That gives you a flavour of the proceedings, and I’ll make no effort to offer a more detailed account of the slanging-match between the residents, Palmerston Road traders, taxi drivers on one side and the hapless council officers and Vernon-Jackson on the other.
It was worrying to hear from the owner of Akram Stores that their trade has been so badly hit by pedestrianisation. They have been established in that half of Palmerston Road for nearly 40 years and are facing real problems. This comes back to the point I made above, that pedestrianisation does not work equally well for all retailers, in fact for some it is a curse. The traders in that half of Palmerston Road depend on easy access and passing trade. There is some evidence that pedestrianisation promotes drunkenness spilling out of the pubs along there. I am not one of those people who thinks there should be a “crackdown” in the area, closure of premises or any of that. It has been a centre for that kind of drinking and nightlife for 40 years. Some people have resided there long enough to have legitimate complaint, some moved in later. There is much that could be said on each side without producing an argument that will convince the other.
The lower half of Palmerston Road should be reopened in my view, plain and simple. Vernon-Jackson was far more equivocal on that subject than The News report suggests. But things cannot be left as they are because traders are suffering, and residents in the area are suffering a deluge of dodge-run traffic. I cannot see how any measures can be taken to stop traffic heading down Lennox Road South without just shunting the problem along to other roads off Clarendon Road. There should be no more money spent on Osborne Road, or Lennox Road for that matter, until Palmerston Road has been fixed.
Most importantly, though, there should be a proper inquiry into how two departments of the City Council can get into such a conflict and why the consultation processes have been overridden. I suspect there will be further meetings about this. Let’s hope they are properly chaired, that representatives from ALL the council departments involved appear, and that eventually voters come to realise the political dimension to this very Lib Dem-led disaster.