Decision to close Peterborough’s St Peter’s Arcade due to ‘anti-social behaviour’ criticised by disability rights campaigner
The decision to try and close St Peter’s Arcade permanently due to “anti-social behaviour” has been criticised by a prominent disability rights campaigner.
Former project development manager at Disability Peterborough Julie Fernandez said there was a lack of “empathy” for disabled people who she fears will become increasingly isolated due to the proposed change.
Her comments come after it was revealed that the temporary closure of the walkway between Bridge Street and the back of the Town Hall due to a lack of space for social distancing is due to be made permanent to allow for a new café culture to be developed in the area.
Council leader Cllr John Holdich also told the Peterborough Telegraph last week that rampant anti-social behaviour from rough sleepers was affecting businesses and deterring visitors to Bridge Street.
Currently, with the arcade closed, both disabled and non-disabled users of Car Haven Car Park have to enter Bridge Street near the Bourges Boulevard crossing, rather than take the shorter route through the walkway.
Introducing more blue badge parking spaces in city centre areas such as Priestgate has been suggested as one option to encourage disabled shoppers into Peterborough.
Ms Fernandez has been campaigning over rights for disabled people for the past three decades, both locally and nationally.
The actress, who starred in hit sitcom The Office, believes the city is missing out on the purple pound which contributes £249 billion to the national economy with people likely to venture elsewhere to do their shopping once Covid restrictions end.
In a call to the city council to make sure that disabled people are included in its thoughts when Peterborough ‘builds back better’ once the pandemic finishes, Ms Fernandez, who requires the use of a wheelchair, said: “As far as I’m aware there are some career beggars in Peterborough but the vast majority of the homeless people are people who have had real difficult situations in their life and felt no other option than become homeless.
“Where is the empathy rather than just helping the business community? It’s not acceptable for local businesses but what about not being acceptable for many thousands of disabled people in Peterborough who want to go into town and spend money?”
Introducing more blue badge parking spaces in city centre areas such as Priestgate has been suggested as one option to encourage disabled shoppers into Peterborough, but Ms Fernandez replied: “It’s all very well and good saying put new blue badge spaces out, but the blue badge scheme has been extended to people with hidden disabilities which means more people will have access to it.
“The little blue badge space we have now is like gold dust - we need to offer more places then people can come and support their local community rather than go to Milton Keynes.
“Think of it in terms of investing in the business community by incentivising more people to come to Peterborough to shop.”
Support for the disabled in Peterborough has been highlighted regularly in the past few years, with promises of a ramped entrance or lift into Queensgate failing to be kept and funding for charities slashed, including for Shopmobility which provides wheelchairs and scooters for disabled shoppers in the city centre.
The council highlighted large cuts to its government grant as the reason funding had to be removed.
Ms Fernandez said the pandemic had revealed the strain on mental isolation which is common for many disabled people who do not feel able to visit the city centre due to its current layout, which includes a shortage of drop kerbs.
She added: “Peterborough’s not the worst place I’ve ever been to (for disability access) but it’s not the best place either. Most businesses have not been access audited so are not as good as could be.
“I would like the council to be more proactive and promote that all businesses have an access audit. Set up a committee to make sure that’s the case and people do something about it.
“It would also be very useful if businesses have disability equality training. The more comfortable they make disabled people feel the more likely they are to use that company.”
Ms Fernandez was responding to comments from Cllr Holdich who said he had received numerous complaints from people regarding anti-social behaviour at St Peter’s Arcade.
In late 2016, the council controversially spent £8,000 on guards outside the arcade for 19 nights to ‘protect the public’ over Christmas and the new year.
At the time the arcade was a hotspot for rough sleepers, with the guards instructed to tell them what support was available and to call the police if there was any anti-social behaviour.
Cllr Holdich told the PT: “When it was open we could not keep the disabled toilet in a decent state to be used. It was being used as a drug den and for all sorts of terrible anti-social behaviour.
“We couldn’t get cleaners to go in it in the end - it was appalling.
“There is of course a toilet under the Car Haven (car park). We will be looking to see if we can put any disabled car parking spaces anywhere else in Peterborough like Priestgate.
“We’ve got to find a solution to how we can move those undesirables out of there. People were wading through human excrement and pee, (there was) sex and drug deals.
“We owe it to the shopkeepers, and for visitors and shoppers alike, to keep it safe and decent and we just couldn’t do that.
“We had a job to move these people on - the law is against you.
“If we can get the rough sleepers out there shouldn’t be a reason we can’t get it open again.
“Ladies used to be abused and sworn at and it really wasn’t nice.”
The council leader added: “The other thing you have to consider, there are a lot of empty shops in Bridge Street. We’ve got to redesign Bridge Street, if that’s the right word.
“In the not too distant future you’ll have hundreds of people living in the city centre. All those places being converted, whether it’s Clifton House, the pound shop on the corner, above Mark’s and Spencer and at Beales, so you’ll have a lot of people in the city centre.
“There is good evidence at the moment - even though we’re in lockdown - that people are going down there.
“If you park in Car Haven it’s not much further to walk down Bridge Street than it is to come through the arcade - it’s not a huge distance.
“We’ve got a lot of options (for the arcade) and no final decisions have been taken on it. It was closed for the right reasons and we need to make sure we can open it up so the city is proud of it and people can visit without being abused.”
Recently, city councillors voted to approve a motion from Labour and Co-operative member for Ravensthorpe Cllr Ed Murphy which requires the council Cabinet to “consider the re-opening of St Peter’s Arcade and enhanced access for disabled people into the city centre”.
The Cabinet has said that the closure of St Peter’s Arcade is “providing benefit” to shops in Bridge Street who are reportedly seeing a higher footfall, while it believes that as part of the city’s recovery plans the arcade could “offer a valuable space to support our café culture aspirations”. It is currently seeking legal advice as it makes plans for the permanent closure of the arcade before then seeking to engage with disability groups.