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Car no longer king in mayor’s people-friendly Leicester

Leicester’s mayor Sir Peter Soulsby tells Deniz Huseyin why he has championed flagship projects such as demolishing a flyover, turning a car park into a public square, and giving more space to pedestrians and cyclists

Deniz Huseyin
13 May 2016
Sir Peter Soulsby
Sir Peter Soulsby
Improving the city’s public realm has been a major priority for Soulsby
Improving the city’s public realm has been a major priority for Soulsby

 

The discovery of a slain king under a car park and the emergence of a football team that has defied the odds have both played a key role in raising the profile of Leicester. The East Midlands city attracted global media coverage in 2012 when the skeleton of King Richard III was discovered under a council car park. After DNA testing confirmed that the remains belonged to the last Plantagenet ruler, reinterment took place at Leicester Cathedral last year. This has prompted the arrival in Leicester of a seldom before seen human specimen known as ‘tourists’. And Leicester FC’s hugely unexpected triumph as this season’s Premier League champions – having started the season as 5,000-1 outsiders for the title – is likely to attract more visitors from around the world.

All of which will delight the elected Labour mayor Sir Peter Soulsby, who, besides being a Leicester City season ticket holder, has made it his mission to create a city and streetscape that is visitor-friendly. When I meet the mayor at his City Hall office, he points out that work to transform the city’s urban realm started long before the emergence of the car park king.

“A lot of the pedestrian and cycling improvements we’ve made had either already happened or were well on their way to being introduced. The programme we are working on was well-established when I was elected mayor nearly five years ago.”

Soulsby was elected mayor in 2011, and re-elected last year with an increased majority. Prior to that he spent 17 years as Leicester’s council leader, after which he was the Labour MP for Leicester South for six years. He resigned as MP in order to stand for the newly created mayoral post. “I thought it was time to get a proper job,” he quips.

The role of elected mayor has enabled Soulsby to press ahead with radical changes to the streetscape. He has overseen a range of projects such as the demolition of a flyover, the transformation of a car park into a public square (see panel), and the loss of traffic lanes to make more space for pedestrians and cyclists. 

 “As an elected mayor it is incredibly refreshing because my accountability is to the electorate whereas a council leader has to answer to the council and councillors. I don’t have to proceed at the pace of the slowest – I can take risks and take the blame if things go wrong.”

Soulsby’s big vision for the city is the Connecting Leicester programme, which involves making the city centre more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly and reducing the dominance of the car. His aim is to remove barriers between different areas of the city and create attractive, well-signed entrances into the city centre.

“In the mid-20th century Leicester, like other comparable cities across the UK, made way for the car,” he says. “We built an inner ring road. In some respects, we couldn’t do without that road now; nobody is going to suggest it isn’t an important part of our infrastructure.”

But he goes on to describe the ring road as a “major physical and psychological barrier”. “It cut through the heart of the Roman and Medieval town and separated the city from its suburbs, but also metaphorically from its history. I intend to continue the job begun by my predecessors who developed the links towards the rail station. What we have sought to do is create links across the ring road. It is getting to the point that people hardly notice the ring road beneath them.” 

In the spirit of bringing down barriers, the iconic, some would say ominous, 1970s Belgrave flyover was demolished in 2014. This, says Soulsby, has resulted in improved walking and cycling links along the Belgrave corridor into the city centre. Cycle tracks and shared-use crossings are planned along the corridor, providing new links to the city centre and to Abbey Park and riverside employment areas via a new Charter Street Bridge.

Leicester’s pedestrian priority zone, which has full access for cyclists, covers more than 2km of street in the city centre. This was made possible by the lifting of restrictions on cycling in all pedestrianised areas in 2008, which means that Leicester now has the largest shared pedestrian/cycle area in the UK, according to the council. Pedestrians and cyclists manage to co-exist in these spaces, for the most part harmoniously, says Soulsby, adding that the number of complaints and incidents involving cyclists is “not significant”.

“I do very occasionally get people who complain about cyclists being inconsiderate, but that is certainly not frequent. I generally get the impression that cyclists are more considerate to pedestrians today than 10 to 15 years ago, perhaps because they are using these spaces as of right and are not aggressively trespassing. It is a question of respect – because cyclists are tolerated they are themselves more tolerant of others.” 

The emphasis has been on sharing space rather than segregated cycle routes. “Segregation is needed on the major arterial routes close to the city centre where roads are busy and traffic is fast-moving. But elsewhere other options make more sense, such as the contra-flow cycle lane on Granby Street.” 

Soulsby recognises that gaps remain in the city’s cycle network – work is underway for a new cycle lane along Welford Road, which shares a junction with Newarke Street. A scheme to improve nearby Belvoir Street for pedestrians and cyclists will also begin in the summer. 

The council aims to connect these schemes as part of a private redevelopment of the former council offices site at Welford Place. “It’s all part of the wider plan to address obvious gaps in the existing city centre cycle network,” he explains.

Removing bus lanes

The Welford Road project involves the replacement of a bus lane with a cycle path. A recent report by the council’s bus lanes task group urged the mayor to not replace any more bus lanes with cycle lanes, saying that the disadvantage to bus passengers outweighs the benefit to cyclists (LTT 15 Apr). Evidence from bus operators suggested that the loss of the third lane in Newarke Street and the removal of Welford Road’s bus lane have affected punctuality. The mayor welcomes the task group’s findings, noting that bus lanes in the city have been largely successful, but he appears sanguine in the face of the concerns raised by the report.

“Bus lanes have grown in an ad hoc basis over the years. Most work well and are probably in the right place, but there are some inconsistencies.”

He argues that some bus lanes served no real purpose. “Welford Road is free-flowing – the bus lane didn’t add very much, if anything, to the free movement of buses because it was a road that had four lanes including the bus lane, and in some places even five lanes. There was more than enough width and the buses were not getting much advantage from having a separate lane.”

Some city councillors have failed to grasp the factors that truly influence traffic flow, Soulsby says. “Some of my colleagues mistakenly believed that road capacity is governed by its width rather than how much you can get through the junctions at either end. We managed to make some changes to the junctions that allowed more traffic to get through.”

In the case of Newarke Street, the changes have resulted in better traffic flow. “With three lanes, the traffic proceeds at a much steadier pace but gets through the length in a shorter time, and very significantly more cyclists use it while pedestrians now find it a comfortable space to walk down.”

A civilised place

Soulsby’s vision to make Leicester a “civilised place” has been shaped by visits to cities on the continent, particularly in the Netherlands and northern Germany. “These are comfortable places for pedestrians and cyclists. As a result, they are places where people want to invest in and visit, and this is increasingly important to us because we want people visiting here.”

Making the city a more attractive place is already proving good for business, believes Soulsby. He cites the decision of US technology giant IBM to open its first UK-based client innovation centre in Leicester, with the creation of 500 jobs over the next three years.

“The decision by IBM to come to Leicester is a major vote of confidence in us. North American companies are used to working with a mayoral system, so for them to talk with the mayor about what the city had to offer made sense.” IBM bought a council-owned building in the city centre. “We were able to make it attractive for them to come here.” 

This follows the move of insurance firm Hastings Direct into the city centre last year, with the creation of more than 1,000 jobs. Meanwhile, UK wealth management firm Mattioli Woods has moved its headquarters back into Leicester’s city centre. “The company had moved out a few years ago because they wanted car parking and more space, but now they are back in the city centre because they want the vitality and the quality of the environment,” says Soulsby. 

The quest for funding

Leicester City Council suffered a setback in 2014 when it failed to secure a Cycle City Ambition Grant from the DfT. The city pressed ahead anyway with a host of improvements set out in an action plan for the bid.

Andy Salkeld, the council’s cycling co-ordinator, says he and his team have had to make the most of the resources at their disposal including the Local Growth Fund from the Leicester and Leicestershire Local Enterprise Partnership, the city council’s capital fund and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

The council has delivered all the key projects outlined in its Ambition Grant bid, says Salkeld, but because it did not win DfT funding some of the cycle routes are shorter than they would have been. Salkeld still seems puzzled by the DfT’s decision. “The Cycle City Ambition Grant documents talk about cities that have political leadership. Leicester demonstrated that more than any other city in the country and yet didn’t get any cash!” 

Soulsby adds: “The point is we could have done even more, and I am frustrated by that.” 

The Welford Road project was funded solely by the Local Growth Fund from the LEP. Concerns were raised in a recent National Audit Office report about the complexity and lack of transparency of LEPs (LTT 15 Apr), but Soulsby says the system is serving Leicester well.  “I don’t know how LEPs are working generally, but it works here because the city and county councils are well disposed towards it and each other. Our relations with the county are excellent, not only across the administrative divide but also across quite a big political divide. There is recognition that our economies are inter-dependent, and so is transportation. We are committed to working with the private sector, and this provides a vehicle within which things can happen.”

This consensus is reflected in the plans for the county, city and district councils to form a combined authority later this year in a bid to boost jobs, improve transport and promote devolution.

“For me the combined authority is an exciting prospect,” says Soulsby. “It makes an awful lot of sense for us to work together. The city is right at the heart of the county with the market towns around us, such as Loughborough, Market Harborough, Melton and Hinckley, all pretty much equidistant from the centre. If the Government is up for giving us responsibilities we are up for using them. This is a great opportunity – I just hope that the reality matches the rhetoric.”  

Sir Peter Soulsby will be speaking at Cycle City Active City in Leicester on 19-20 May

 
 
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