Let’s Rethink Central Douglas

A Douglas Councillor wants people to consider the possibilities and potential of pedestrianising parts of the island’s capital rather than just looking at why it can’t be done.

Green Party member Andrew Bentley, who is a chartered architect, wants to see more of Douglas’ North Quay and some pavements and streets made available to businesses and pedestrians. 

I Do Like to Be Beside the Quayside

Speaking to Gef, Mr Bentley said he was disappointed to see that a trial to close parts of the North Quay to traffic in the evenings was only introduced this month as the businesses and community could have benefited from it in late Spring. The trial runs on the short stretch from St Matthews Church to the corner at the Manx Legion, However, because of the businesses involved, the whole scheme still needed to be signed off by the licensing courts. When the trial was run last year, it found that 80% of people supported the scheme.

He said: ‘This has been very frustrating for me because we went through the public consultation in October and really we have to ask why wasn’t it ready for Easter? We had quite a cold April and May but they are traditionally some of the sunnier months on the island and it would’ve been good to have it then. Obviously we had a lockdown in April, but it would’ve been good to have the process in place. But we’ve got it and it’s from 5pm everyday and on Sundays. 

‘Again I have reservations about that as I feel it should be all day on Saturday as well because that’s when people are there and having spoken to several businesses down there, I’m not convinced that 5pm is the right time because 5pm is when they start to get busy so really they’d like to be able to get the tables out a little earlier.’

While this scheme is underway, Mr Bentley wants to have a wider debate about what it is that islanders want the centre of the capital to look like. Looking at the North Quay, he said: ‘We’re looking at just extending the pavement seating over a little bit but that may not be the best place for them, that may be over by the railings where the sun lasts longer in the evening. 

Andrew Bentley

What Next?

Along the North Quay there have been plans in place for the redevelopment of several buildings, including for hospitality venues, since before the pandemic and while Mr Bentley says there would have to be detailed conversations about how to ensure access to businesses for deliveries and disabled access but that the plans have to be considered.

However, he says that a suggestion to extend this the whole length of the North Quay up to the corner of Mrs Yangs and the Railway, would be more difficult as it could affect the traffic flow of what is a major junction. And even at the Barbary Coast end of the Quay, there is still uncertainty about whether the Lord Street development will go ahead, although Mr Bentley said he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that it will. But, the development of the site, as well as keeping the vital section of road outside the Manx Legion open, would have an impact on how the North Quay is used. 

Victoria Street

It isn’t only the North Quay that Mr Bentley has raised the possibility of altering. Looking at Victoria Street, he pointed out last year that the road is wide enough for big pavements, two lanes of traffic and a taxi rank, this is despite it being a one way street. He said: ‘A lot of Victoria Street is given over to cars, my suggestion was that if we were to move the taxi rank over one space, you’d have a narrow street, but cars could still get along it and you would retain the taxi rank. But you could give that extra space to Oscars, Bohemian, the Blind Pig, Freshly Squeezed, Dream Bird, they could all have an extended area. But this was very much from looking around Europe and seeing that more space around the cities is being given over to the hospitality industry, giving them more room to function and spread out.’

During a recent Council meeting when Mr Bentley raised this, he received support from none other than Council Leader David Christian who said he had wanted to see more of the capital, including Victoria Street, pedestrianised years ago.

Why Only the DoI?

Part of Mr Bentley’s strategy to raise the debate is to post his ideas on social media to gauge public reaction. He said of this: ‘Sometimes nobody puts this narrative out there, apart from the DoI and I think we should be throwing out the big idea and seeing what the response is and worry about the details later. Obviously there are a lot of details to consider with these things but the important thing to consider is ‘what sort of town do we live in?’ But also to reflect on what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years and ask if it is still working for us and is it making people happy?’

He said that he was pleasantly surprised by the positivity from his posts on social media about pedestrianising areas of the town, even just for evenings and weekends, but what excited him the most was that people started to debate amongst themselves about what could be done.

‘Some of the questions went off on a tangent and I think this is really good because we’re starting to get debates, people talking about their town, because it’s not something people do here, we don’t value Douglas in the same way,’ Mr Bentley said. ‘People will talk about Peel and Castletown far more than they will about how the centre of Douglas looks, it’s just seen as a big car park and a place to do your business. But actually, 27,000 people live here, it’s the capital, this is where our holidaymakers come and somewhere that we all come for recreation, to shop and in many cases, to work.’

Sunken Gardens

One of the great sights in Douglas is the Sunken Gardens, the town’s parks team do a great job of creating floral arrangements, or as Mr Bentley said they are ‘Premier League of gardeners’. But he still thinks the gardens could be better used to create a space that better suits the needs and wants of the capital’s residents. He said: ‘The parks are very formal. So you see the benches all in a line, they’re not very family friendly, if a family wants a picnic together, to be sitting in a line on a bench, it isn’t always practicable and this is one of things I feel that we really need to look at, how to make the town more family friendly? The truth is that the world we live in is designed by able bodied, white men and we need to consider diversity in these things. I was just thinking the other day, the planning committee [which is currently all male] should be 50% female because it’s representative of the people who will be using, socialising and living in these spaces. 

‘I see it that the Sunken Gardens could be of better benefit to the town, we have a series of spaces, they are slightly sheltered and they are in varying degrees popular, but it’s more the point that we have a town centre that we need to make relevant and to make it relevant we need more things happening there and this is something that is absolutely in the Council’s control and it’s asking what can we do to attract people to the town centre to do whatever it is they do and what they can do to make the place vibrant. Part of the thing about keeping people on the island is about making it fun to be here, if it’s a great place to be young, people will stay. We all know the lure of a big city, it happened to me, I went away to live for 10 years, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but it is important that for those who do stay, that its not seen as drudgery, it needs to be seen as being fun and there is a lot going on.’

One of the ideas Mr Bentley has floated is a skatepark in one of the sunken gardens which is away from the hotels and residential premises for the simple reason that if people are making noise at 10pm, it isn’t inconveniencing others. He has also questioned whether, since many people use the prom for walking, cycling, running and for taking part in group exercises, whether it would make sense to move the exercise machines from Nobles Park onto the prom, or to add more there.

Outside the Capital

Having grown up in Castletown and still playing hockey in the town, Mr Bentley says it had ‘kind of hit rock bottom’. 

He added: ‘I remember walking through the street at 3pm and being the only person there and it wasn’t the town I grew up in when there was a bike shop, a fishmonger and all these things just disappeared. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the Commissioners and the clerk Hugo Mackenzie to say we have to do something different, we can’t just keep doing the same model and yes you’re going to upset people along the way but we’re now seeing young people on nights out in Castletown that you wouldn’t have seen 10 years ago.’ 

One of the key elements of Castletown’s rebirth has been its belief in giving over space to events, promoting art installations on its civic centre and events such as the Balley Cashtal markets and the ‘Paint the Town Hall Pink’ campaign to raise money for cancer charities which have brought in people from around the island but also helped strengthen the community spirit. While he doesn’t want to replicate this exact model for Douglas as it needs to find its own identity, Mr Bentley said the Council can learn from Castletown Commissioners in doing this.

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