Much-needed coach parking is a key to Berwick's economic revival
As a professional tour guide with 28 years experience of guiding visitors around Berwick and district, I must express my concern that the town faces the possibility of yet another season without suitable facilities for touring coaches.
Despite the current difficult financial climate, it is time for the authorities responsible for Berwick’s regeneration to wake up and do something positive to enable the town to benefit from the heritage tourism which should be the bedrock of our economy.
When talking of coach groups, we should not imagine the charabanc parties of yesteryear, but luxury touring coaches filled with people who are looking for a place with a fascinating history, wonderful townscape and views to explore, and a variety of small independent shops to find – a place very like Berwick in fact.
In recent months I have been asked to demonstrate the demand for coach parking in Berwick.
Anyone with knowledge of the coach trade will know that Berwick is currently considered a place to avoid, because it has no suitable facilities for touring coaches. Without a ‘must-see’ attraction and without a coach-parking area, it is not possible to demonstrate the demand.
So where does the potential demand lie?
When I guide coach groups onto Holy Island, I am often on board the tenth or even twelfth coach parking there. The other coaches do not disappear when they leave the island, but very few arrive in Berwick. The drivers’ information tells them that there are no suitable facilities for coaches. Just over 30 minutes’ drive northwards, Berwick offers an obvious addition to the itinerary for the day, especially if the tide on the day restricts the length of stay on Holy Island,
Berwick is situated less than 60 miles north of the Port of Tyne International Passenger Terminal at North Shields. Many of the touring coaches are heading northwards to Edinburgh and onwards. Berwick is situated conveniently between the two locations, providing an ideal stopping place for passengers.
How frequently have we seen luxury continental coaches driving down Marygate, often continuing down into Hide Hill before returning minutes later and passing through Scotsgate and on to the A1 northwards?
Bringing more touring coaches to Berwick will not by itself solve our economic woes and some will ask whether it is wise to encourage more traffic within the town walls.
However, a coach filled with 45 to 50 passengers has the economic potential equivalent to more than 20 cars parking in the town. Even an average of eight coaches per day represents some 350 visitors, or more than 200 cars-worth. Would we rather attract ten coaches or 200 cars? The longer a coach can be encouraged to stay in the town, the more money its passengers will spend.
The crucial person on that coach is the driver. If he is expected to drop his passengers and park away from the town’s attractions he will have no idea what Berwick has to offer. The next time he visits, he will still have no idea and cannot pass on any information to his passengers. The result is likely to be a relatively short refreshments stop at best.
Sign up to our daily newsletter
The i newsletter cut through the noise
A driver who is able to explore the town on his first visit can pass on his knowledge to future coach groups and may possibly be encouraged to suggest to his coach operator that the town may be a suitable addition to an itinerary, rather than merely a refreshment stop.
We are all well aware that there is no easy answer to the problem of locating coaches in or near the town centre, but several options have been considered.
Many local people have rejected Northumberland County Council’s preferred option of creating a parking area for a maximum of four coaches in Chapel Street after dropping their passengers at the bays provided, at substantial cost, beside the Parade Car Park.
The Chapel Street proposal may look acceptable on paper but has practical limitations in respect of manoeuvring and reversing in narrow streets. A number of existing, much-needed car park and on-street parking spaces will be lost if this proposal is adopted. The Chapel Street proposal has also generated understandable opposition from local residents.
There is some local feeling that the most suitable arrangement would be to take out part of the Castlegate Car Park to use for coach parking. This brings the passengers close to the town centre and the Walls and has the added benefit of the coaches being close to toilets on arrival, which is an important consideration.
However, a number of short-stay car parking spaces in a prime position near the entrance to the car park will need to be removed to accommodate the coaches. Since free parking has been introduced, the town’s car parks are already quickly filled, even outside the visitor season, which is certainly another issue that needs to be considered.
I foresee considerable local opposition to taking out existing car parking spaces, especially as English Heritage have cast some doubt on the long-term car-parking arrangement on the grass-creted area beyond Cumberland Bastion.
A proposal involving unloading of coach passengers near the entrance to a very busy car park and potential conflict with passing vehicles would present obvious potential safety issues. This option would also cause additional traffic congestion due to coaches turning into or departing from the car park.
I therefore ask Northumberland County Council to consider carefully, once again, the substantial potential of the use of the Coxons Lane end of the former Kwik Save site as a suitable location for coach parking.
Even if part of the former Kwik Save site is to be occupied by offices, the area designated for phase two of the former Kwik Save site development will provide ample space for at least eight coaches and imaginative design of whatever buildings are to be constructed could include provision of toilet facilities and welcoming information within the town walls. This proposal is extremely cost-effective as it involves no requirement to purchase land and very little construction work will be needed. The use of the site has the additional benefit of not reducing the number of existing public car parking spaces in the town.
It is time for some genuine forward-thinking and a realisation that Berwick’s tourism offer is failing badly in competition with other towns and attractions.