Why Belfast will pay the penalty for driving visitors parking mad
Published 13/08/2014 | 10:00
Sunday afternoon and what the weather people are describing as ex-hurricane Bertha (nothing too ex about her, I say) is battering Belfast city centre. The rain is coming in sideways. All along Howard Street and other streets close to the City Hall you see people with maps. Little clusters of two or three, here and there, poring over their bit of dampened paper and looking anxious.
I come from a generation that well remembers when we just didn't have any tourists. At all. (If you discount the war correspondents, that is). The sight of tourists, genuine tourists (not somebody's in-laws from Birmingham) is still to me a striking, uplifting thing. And here they are in numbers to gladden the heart of any tourist board. Mostly American, judging by the accents. A bit peeved by Bertha, judging by the facial expressions. They turn the corner into our city's premier shopping street and there it all is before them ...
Armageddon in Royal Avenue.
That's how it must have looked anyway. A wall of police Land Rovers blocking the entire street off. Even to those of us who are well used to such sights down the years it still looks shocking and intimidating. How is it the the tourist ad puts it? Belfast – discover the place. Discover the vibe.
I think there was a boat in on Sunday. A cruise ship with many Americans wanting a quick flavour of our city. By God they got it.
But did they really? The evening before, city centre bars in full swing, people out enjoying themselves – that was an equally valid Belfast vibe.
And, whatever the ructions, the commercial heart of Belfast, fair play to it, still keeps beating. The priority during the likes of Sunday's clash always has to be life and limb. Thankfully this time PSNI casualties were nowhere near as bad as last year.
There's also the financial cost. Not just the loss to the exchequer but to city centre businesses, as has so often been pointed out before. On top of all this there is also a price to pay in the significant dent to the city's image as a welcoming place.
And this is where my journey through Belfast on Sunday takes off down another track. Down Oxford Street, heading past St George's Market, to be exact.
I was last in the market about a month ago and was struck as I always am, by just what a gem it is. Heaving with tourists and locals with everything on sale from the visitor-targeted (Giant's Causeway shaped soaps and tweed caps) to amazing food, fish, handmade jewellery, you name it. This really is Belfast – the vibe you want to discover.
But outside in the rain last Sunday? Two traffic wardens furiously churning out tickets for a shoal of cars parked on the pavement opposite. Okay, so they shouldn't have been there. (The cars. Although, I would also argue, the wardens).
There is very obviously a lack of adequate or at least well signposted parking in the immediate vicinity of St George's. But parking fines – what a way to welcome customers to a market that is a central boast of your city's current tourism ad campaign. Instead of sending the red-coated public servants out to impose fines couldn't some guides be paid instead to identify parking spaces and show people to them? Parking on the pavement (which is a wide one anyway) would be safe enough if there was someone there to supervise.
Instead of patrolling the market environs with financial penalty, shouldn't the council actually be looking to extend it, not curtail it, at weekends?
Shut off a few streets (without Land Rovers), bring in the stalls and create a Sunday buzz that will offer something to locals and visitors alike (especially cruise ship day-trippers.)
Given our unique problems, Belfast commerce does not always have its sorrows to seek. To use the poet's line, the city has its madness and its weather still.
But why not do something about those things you can make much, much better?
It says something that one of the bleakest, most unwelcoming images I have from Sunday is of the man with the hand-held machine churning out penalty notices as I drove past in the bucketing rain. Is this really the vibe Belfast wants to project?
Council is boxing clever for Rinty
My thanks to Barry Flynn who got in touch after last week's column about why there isn't a statue to the great Rinty Monaghan, one-time world flyweight champion. Barry says that actually Belfast City Council is already working on this.
They'd placed tender in the paper a couple of weeks ago seeking expressions of interest for a bronze Rinty statue in the Cathedral Quarter.
Another is planned to commemorate another boxing hero, John Caldwell in Dunville, and it's hoped a third will be erected in Woodvale Park to salute the boxing tradition in the Shankill. Barry says the scheme will cost £250,000 and hopefully will be on track for summer next year.
Minister's idea lacks the golden touch
In Dubai (mega-rich Dubai) they've spearheaded a programme aimed at tackling the local obesity epidemic and the resultant strain on the health service.
They're rewarding slimmers with a gram of gold for every kilo of fat they lose.
While they take the carat approach, our own health minister, Edwin Poots, is more of a stick man. He favours charging drink and drug abusers a fee in A&E. How would this work? How could it? The administration costs alone would surely soak up any profit to the NHS.
And if you charge the drunk and belligerent, who next? The overweight? Smokers? High heel wearers? It's about as realistic as the Dubai option. Except in this case, fool's gold.