A section of Main Street in Portlaoise is set to be pedestrianised for the months of July and August, but a number of concerns over that decision were raised at the recent Municipal District meeting in Laois County Council.
As first revealed by LaoisToday, Lower Main Street – from Railway Street to the the old Shaw’s site – will be pedestrianised from 11am to 5.30pm from Thursday, July 2, to Sunday, August 30.
But councillors for the Portlaoise area expressed their disappointment that the change doesn’t include Main Street in its entirety.
The temporary closure of the street is to help businesses in the area adapt to the changes brought about by the Coronavirus by giving space for them to use outside their premises for seating or queing.
Director of Services Simon Walton strongly recommended that the councillors not insist on the remainder of Main Street being included – but did say that the council “are not wedded” to the current change and “will be keeping it under ongoing review”.
Mr Walton said that the council had met with a number of various groups including the Town Team, the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Portlaoise and individual traders.
And that while it was impossible to get universal approval, the “overwhelming feedback – 80 to 90%” was in support of it. “That is a substantial mandate,” he said.
Among the frustrations expressed by the councillors was they they as elected representative weren’t consulted fully on the issue and said that the changes was unfair on businesses not on that section of Main Street.
“There are aspects of this I’m not happy about,” said Cllr Mary Sweeney, who had led the charge for more outdoor space to be given to businesses at the last meeting of the Portlaoise Municipal District.
“The Top Square for example and I have a personal interest here as a family member purchased a pub there at considerable expense.”
“Why were we as public representatives not consulted on this?” said Cllr Willie Aird, who referenced the notice of the intention to close that section of the street was only published yesterday.
“You’ve no right to go ahead without consulting us,” he added.
“Sorry to say this and you’ve been absolutely very good but you’ve listed off all the stakeholders and left out councillors,” said Cllr Caroline Dwane-Stanley.
“Lately we seem to be reading a lot of stuff and we’ve had no input or very little input.
“We’re going to have more job losses in this town. The whole Main Street should be allowed conduct their business on the the street and let traffic be redirected for the sake of two months.”
“It’s totally unfair on some businesses,” said Cllr Noel Tuohy, who mentioned an email from a business on Lower Main Street whose area isn;’t pedestrianisted but other businesses “six doors up” are.
“Do the whole street or not at all,” he added. “Businesses have got a kicking.”
“I completely support the whole way down,” added Cllr Dwane-Stanley. “I’m proposing the entire Main Street – top to bottom.”
Simon Walton responded that a Local Authority does not by law have to consult councillors over the closure of a street but that he had emailed the councillors prior to the public notice being published and that “in the normal course of events, would have come to council”.
“But wasn’t possible on this occasion given the circumstances. Regret day after notice placed but that is an issue of calendar.”
He explained that if the change is applied to all of Main Street, then other streets have to be pedestrianised too – like Bull Lane, Bridge Street and Railway Street.
“That all comes with other issues. There are fewer traffic implcations with this.”
He said that they had considered five options in all – 1 – All of Main Street; 2 – From the Courthouse down to Lower Main Street; 3 – the middle section of Main Street; 4 – just removing parking from the street; 5 – no change at all.
“At this point in time, I’m recommending against that (all of Main Street). Don’t think it’s the right thing to do.
“This option is the best option for now. Can extend initial intervention. It’s the solution that gives the best flexibility. When implemented, can give a few weeks to bed in but can revise it.”
He said it was important that the public can have confidence to “shop local and do all the things we’re hoping they will do”.
He also added that the section of Main Street to be pedestrianised is what the councillors themselves approved in 2018 when they backed the Portlaoise 2040 plan and that previously in 2016 there was a huge file of objections to proposals to pedestrianise from Bridge Street.
“That was all before Covid,” pointed out Cllr Noel Tuohy.
“It doesn’t get away from fact that businesses are disadvantaged,” came back Cllr Dwane-Stanley
“If this plan had come before us we could have had our input and I certainly would have said Bridge Street and Top Square as well.
“Give a level playing field to all businesses. It’s a small ask for the sake of two months.”
Cllr Thomasina Connell was supportive of the option taken but said “it will take the public a while to get used to it”.
Cllr Connell and Cllr Catherine Fitzgerald were the only councillors to sit on the Town Team meetings, something Cllr Fitzgerald pointed out – despite all councillors being invited to those meetings.
The issue didn’t go to a vote but Willie Aird said that the handling of it was “regrettable”.
“Businesses feel left out. Not everybody is a member of these groups. They do pay rates and need to be respected. They’re not getting fair play.
“It’s an awful pity that can’t give the same opportunity to the top and bottom of the town. Allow them trade fairly. All these people are together, rowing the one way. We have to be fair and equal to all businesses.”