It is one of the most controversial road schemes Lancashire has seen for years. But as the first phase of the Fishergate “shared space” project nears completion, some traders say all their Christmases have come at once.
For a man who has spent every working day since January in the midst of a war zone, Keith Mitchell is disarmingly cheerful.
The roadworks outside the Fishergate Shopping Centre he manages are finally being wrapped up, just in time for the great Christmas rush.
And Keith is as excited as a six-year-old waiting for Santa to call.
It will be, he predicts, a season to be exceptionally merry for the businesses along Preston’s main shopping street.
“We always do Christmas well in this city – but this year it’s going to be even better,” he insists.
“Looking outside, Fishergate is looking fantastic. It’s going to be like Disneyland when they get the lights up.
“It’s fabulous and just what we’ve all been waiting for.”
Keith’s satisfied smile comes in stark contrast to the frowns of others who have pilloried the £3.4m Central Gateway project and its designers from start to almost finish. Few road schemes have attracted such all-round criticism. And if anyone ought to look and sound dejected it is the boss of a retail mall stuck in the midst of muck and mayhem for practically a year.
Yes, it has been a “challenging” time, he says, surrounded by mechanical diggers, barriers, holes in the pavements and a posse of men in hard hats. But Keith insists he is looking at the bigger picture.
“It’s a vision. When the roadworks finish later this month we’ll be left with a High Street which is simply awesome.
“It’ll be a deal-changer for those businesses who are looking to come into the city. A stimulus for more investment to come. We’ve already attracted Sainsbury’s and Tesco and there are bound to be more.”
The nub of the argument over Fishergate’s “shared space” scheme, apart from the disruption it has caused in an already busy city centre, is that pedestrians and vehicles just don’t mix.
Given there are no traffic lights, no real demarcation lines and no rules – other than the one which advises both sides to respect one another – it is, say critics, an accident waiting to happen.
But in other parts of the UK where shared space schemes are already in operation, the picture is far different.
In London’s Kensington High Street casualties dropped by 43 per cent over two years. In Brighton motor vehicle trips and speeds both dropped markedly, while pedestrian and cyclist use increased.
Further up Fishergate, away from the soon-to-be completed Phase One, businesses are bracing themselves for the start of Phase Two early next year.
They too face months of roadworks, but they also face the prospect of a revitalised front street which should attract more customers once it is complete.
Ady Shaw, manager of the HMV store, is just as excited about the outcome as Keith Mitchell.
“As far as we know they’ll start on us early next year and, like this year, it should be finished by Christmas,” he said. “I’m more positive than some, I think the outcome will far outweigh the disruption.
“I’m told they are putting lights in the tress they’re planting – and not just for Christmas. It’ll be all year round sparkle.
“I’m glad they are planning to extend the shared space up here because we need it as much as the businesses further down.”
Groups who have voiced concerns about mixing pedestrians and cars include the visually impaired.
Only last month Carl Ibison, who regularly walks with his guide dog from Preston Railway Station to his job at the University of Central Lancashire, spoke out saying blind people have no way of knowing when or where to cross without the usual landmarks like traffic lights and pavement kerbs.
Galloway’s Society for the Blind, based in Penwortham, was invited in to advise on the Preston scheme and some of their recommendations have since been incorporated in the layout. “As things stand Phase One is pretty much a no-go zone for visually impaired people,” he said. “The County Council did consult with us, but only after they’d made their decision to go ahead.
“That said, we’ve had a positive relationship with them and they’ve been willing to listen. We talked about things like raising the kerbs and using contrasting materials and they’ve taken notice of our views.”
Back at the Fishergate Centre, Keith Mitchell was smiling even more after rows of trees were planted in readiness for the street’s busiest season of the year.
“We’re going to have a fabulous High Street,” he said. “Just awesome.
“There’s no way on earth we could have achieved that without this level of disruption, it was just too big a job.
“It’s been challenging to say the least. But I happen to think it’s all going to be worthwhile. Roll on Christmas.”