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Anti-car drive is leaving traders in a pretty Pickle


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Eric Pickles has taken the hump over speed bumps, bollards and bonkers parking policy. The government's Communities Secretary, to give him his proper title, argues that anti-car policies are re-routing shoppers away from city centres towards out-of-town shopping malls.

And you have only to consider Belfast to see how right the man is.

Now, there's no doubt that street disturbance has played a major role in the recent hammering of the Belfast city centre trade. And yes, there's a recession on. And our volatile weather system doesn't exactly help either.

But how much has the slow strangulation of many a viable local business been accelerated by an official policy which treats the car-borne customer as some sort of public nuisance – if not outright enemy?

How lovely it would be, we'd all say – a world where everyone tootled into town on their eco-friendly bike to ferry home the organic veg and artisan loaf in their reusable wicker basket waving merrily as they pass those happy passengers on that convenient and speedy bus purring past ...

Unfortunately however, life is not a Noddy cartoon. In the real world not everybody finds it easy or efficient to cycle or to bus it into Belfast.

Try it with a baby buggy and a couple of small children, for example. Especially if you're hoping to bring home something bulky.

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The car (and I say this as someone who regularly uses the bus) is very often more convenient.

But official policy has it that the car is the enemy. Of the environment, of Belfast On The Move, of civilisation as we know it.

The car driver is a cash cow who must be made to pay. And parking charges in Belfast – especially at the weekend when they could and should be relaxed to encourage shoppers and visitors into town – are exorbitant.

Add in the foot patrols of red-coated wardens hovering like vehicle vultures over any car where the ticket is due to expire, just waiting to slap a ticket on the very second it does ...

Okay, it's not the workers' fault. They're doing the job they're paid to do.

But there's no mercy shown. No leeway. The recent case of the ticket slapped on a vehicle in which some poor soul had just passed away may seem an extreme example. But perhaps not so shocking given a system which also targets visitors during festivals and holiday periods.

Visitors who in many cases have travelled a very long way and will go back home laden with dark tales about our interpretation of hospitality.

A fortune is spent on cheery, feelgood ads luring people "back in Belfast".

But this message must be soured a bit for those who foolishly assume the general welcome is also extended to the family hatchback.

As well as parking charges, Eric Pickles has picked on bollards, bumps and general street clutter as off-putting for encouraging commerce and tourism.

With Belfast it's bus lanes. We have become the unofficial bus lane capital of Western Europe.

But all around the wider city we have speed bumps too. Bumps that larger, heavier vehicles can zip over. Bumps which boy racers in smaller cars avoid by swerving dangerously around them. Bumps which only really slow down careful drivers in small cars. The one group in other words who are least likely to cause problems in the first place.

Eric Pickles is right – the whole system needs an overhaul. It needs an injection of realism and a bit of sympathy with and acceptance of the motoring shopper/visitor.

Up in their ivory towers however, the planners only seem to see one road ahead.

Bus-laned, bumpy, double-yellow-lined. The one-way fast-track to city centre decline.

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