ONE of Scotland's most historic towns is engulfed in a safety row over whether to use roadside parking spaces for cars or to create extra walking space for pedestrians.

Fife Council is facing a backlash after removing roadside barriers put up in St Andrews to widen the pavements and allow pedestrians to physically distance during the pandemic.

The council has been accused by residents and cycle campaigners of "prioritising business interests at the expense of health needs" after scrapping the 'Spaces for People' infrastructure on Market Street, the town's busiest thoroughfare, following an outcry from local shopkeepers.

Businesses were angry that more than 30 car parking spaces had been cordoned off to create the extra walking space, saying there had been "no meaningful consultation".

They said the loss of car parking spaces would penalise the elderly and disabled "who will no longer be able to access the shopping centre without difficulty".

The seaside town, famed for its golf courses and historic university, is said to have around 1000 residents in their 80s.

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Around 60 members of the local business improvement district (BID) formed a petition, which attracted more than 1000 signatures, arguing that the measures contravened Covid-19 guidance to "avoid public transport and travel by car if possible" and would "have a devastating impact on our businesses".

Within days of being erected in early October, the Market Street barriers were pulled down, although dozens of parking bays in neighbouring streets continue to be sealed off.

The initiative was part-funded by a £2.4 million from Sustrans Scotland as a temporary measure to enable physical distancing.

Traders are understood to have feared the loss of parking would become permanent.

However, the council now faces a backlash from residents and cycle campaigners.

Professor Richard Olver, emeritus professor of child health at Dundee University and vice-chair of the St Andrews Confederation of Residents Associations, said pedestrians on Market Street were having to dodge each other by walking into the road.

He said: "I am frankly shocked to learn that during a public health emergency, a decision has been taken to remove most, if not all, the Spaces for People measures, without further consultation with any stakeholders other than BID St Andrews.

“St Andrews is peppered with signs instructing pedestrians to keep two-metres apart in accordance with Sottish Government guidance, but Fife Council is now dismantling the very measures necessary to allow this to happen.

“I believe this to be totally irresponsible and it will render safe physical distancing impossible when the streets are busy with students and visitors, forcing people either to rub shoulders or walk into the road - as I personally have had to do on numerous occasions.

"With an outbreak of coronavirus in the University and an upsurge in cases elsewhere in Fife, the timing could not be worse.

“Prioritising business interests at the expense of the health needs of the public is surely wrongheaded. After all, neither residents nor visitors will not want to shop in the town centre if they do not feel safe.”

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David Middleton, chair of the Confederation of St Andrews Residents Associations (CSARA), called for the removal of the Market Street barriers to be reversed.

“This is not an issue which should be resolved by dictat or the influence of one pressure group," said Mr Middleton, adding that CSARA has written to Fife Council with a number of suggestions about how to meet the needs of local businesses alongside creating "safe and attractive streets for their customers".

Tony Waterston, chair of St Andrews Space for Cycling (SASC) said it "strongly supports" parking restrictions in the town centre "which were put in place to increase the space available on pavements which have become heavily crowded with the return of students to the town".

He added: "We believe that it is a myth that less parking means less shoppers and, in any case, there is plenty of parking available within a short distance of the town centre.

"The Council should show that it is committed to putting the public's health first and continue with the parking restrictions which have been instituted on a temporary basis only.”

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But Louise Fraser, the chair of BID St Andrews who owns the Fraser Gallery in South Street and lives in the centre of town, said the barriers were already impacting on trade. 

She said: "Despite assertions in the press accusing businesses of overstating the impact of the barriers, we are seeing a downturn in trade (the impact of COVID aside). 

"Real drops in footfall, in takings and therefore in profit.  After months and months of very difficult trading conditions, this is an additional obstacle in the way of local businesses being economically viable. 

"If you are in any doubt about the downturn in trade, please do pop in to any business in town and ask them – they would be more than willing to give you the lowdown on their facts and figures.

"It’s not just about parking spaces.  The barriers are exactly that to all kinds of logistics affecting the businesses: deliveries, uplifting of waste, access for the elderly, infirm and those who are time poor. 

"We have a large and growing population of elderly living in town with dentists, opticians, podiatrists, osteopaths and others (some now currently providing NHS emergency services) whose clientele need to be able to park close to the practice." 

Altany Craik, convener of Fife Council’s economy, tourism, strategic planning and transportation committee, said the council was seeking to "strike the balance" between the needs of residents, local businesses and visitors.

He stressed that the current measures are temporary.

"The demand for space varies over time with Christmas expected to have a higher demand for pedestrian space in town centre shopping streets," said Mr Craik.

“The autumn volume of pedestrians within the town centre is greatly reduced from previous weeks and that some of the measures, at this time of year, are no longer warranted.

"Therefore, as the footways are wider in Market Street, the measures have been removed for the time being.

"However, should things change, and when the town becomes busier again on the run up to Christmas, we will reconsider this area and the potential to provide further space to help with social distancing.

“All of these measures are temporary and we’ll continue to work with local communities to modify these layouts where required.”