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Move to open city centre bus lanes up to cars for Christmas is rejected

By Rebecca Black

A proposal to allow cars to use Belfast city centre's controversial bus lanes every Saturday in the run-up to Christmas has been rejected.

Councillor Gavin Robinson urged Belfast City Council to back his call for Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy to remove the restrictions on using bus lanes in December.

But last night Mr Kennedy rejected out of hand any suggestion there would be a break from bus lanes.

The bus lane network in the city centre was introduced in 2012 as part of the Department for Regional Development's Belfast On The Move programme - which has sharply divided opinion over whether it relieves congestion or increases it.

Mr Robinson also called for two council car parks, at Ormeau Avenue and Raphael Street, to be made available to the public free of charge on Saturdays this month.

He said the city centre has faced difficulties since 2006 thanks to a combination of the recession, online shopping and out of town shopping centres.

"We as a council need to reflect on what it is we can do to add a sense of vibrancy and success into our city centre," the DUP man said.

"Our retail core is hugely important to the overall vibrancy of this city but, more than that, this Christmas season is referred to as the harvest for the retail sector within Belfast.

"For many retailers the forthcoming three or four weeks will provide enough for those businesses to sustain themselves over the next four or five months."

All members of the council had been contacted by the sustainable transport charity Sustrans, which voiced concerns over the proposal to temporarily open the bus lanes to private transport.

Mr Robinson said his motion was "not an attack on public transport or an attempt to undermine public transport", but an "attempt to do all we can to support the retailers of Belfast".

He pointed out that Liverpool council had opened its bus lanes.

"I think it would be an interesting pursuit to see the benefits, or the negatives, of removing bus lanes on the four Saturdays in the run-up to Christmas," he said.

"We want people to come from right across Northern Ireland, as they have before and I hope they will again."

DUP councillor Christopher Stalford seconded the motion, pointing out that for many with children or disabled relatives, a car was a "necessity", adding: "We should be doing all we can to encourage people to come into our city and spend their money."

SDLP councillor Claire Hanna said she could not support the removal of the bus lane restrictions, saying it was too late for Translink to facilitate the request and could cause confusion to road users.

She said she supported the motion - which endorsed this weekend's Small Business Saturday and highlighted public safety messages over the festive season - apart from the removal of the bus lanes.

Ms Hanna's amendment was passed unanimously.

After the debate, Mr Kennedy said: "I have no plans at present to make any changes to the traffic management measures operating in the city centre because the current measures have proved to have been a success.

"Bus passenger numbers have increased and our park and ride services are becoming increasingly more popular.

"Indeed, bus passengers make a significant contribution to the local economy.

"The Belfast On The Move traffic arrangements have created a more accessible city centre," he added.

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