SPEAKING ON Manx Radio Sunday, Infrastructure Minister Ray Harmer explained some of the thinking behind his department's announcement this week that it would spend £50,000 from its revenue budget to carry out a 'short-term fix' on the southern (Loch Prom) end of the prom, similar to that which was carried out on Queen's and Central Promenade in November last year.
“It’s relatively straightforward, and it again, hopefully, as
I say some parts of that southern prom are so poor, and it will
follow very much the northern prom to really to give relief to
people to be able to sort of use that carriageway without sort of
hitting potholes and hitting, you know, causing damage to
vehicles so we’re quite keen to see that relief.”
Indeed... Regular users of Douglas Promenade are on almost first name terms with the hundreds of lumps, bumps, pits, craters, fissures, depressions and in some cases holes which have battered their suspension systems into repair shops for the last twenty years. Some of the irregularities are a result of issues with the age of the roadway itself, but many more are the result of sheer neglect or inadequate patching which has taken place since the Corporation divested itself of the Borough highways around 1980, and maintenance passed to what is now Mr Harmer's department.
The condition of the promenade is not entirely due to lack of expenditure. Significant sums have been spent in the very recent past on consultations, consultants, plans and planning enquiries. And after all this, it is STILL uncertain as to exactly what is proposed generally and for Loch Prom in particular. It is not only the road surface which is a mess. How did we get to where we are? It is a long story.
In common with many urban roads in the UK, Douglas Corporation favoured the products of The Trinidad Lake Asphalt Company to construct and surface the principal roads in the capital. This system as implemented in Douglas used a six-inch (150mm) thick steel reinforced concrete foundation, covered with a two-inch (50mm) layer of rock asphalt, the surface gritted to provide a non-skid surface. The process produced an attractive, smooth and easily repairable result.
Prior to about 1980, permanent patching was carried out by
Corporation road men using a hot asphalt mix poured into repairs,
and allowed to self-level with the aid of a flame lance. The
result was a smooth repair, and many of these have stood the test
of time such as those used to fill in the WWII post holes from
when the promenade was an internment camp. Following the transfer
of responsibility for repairs to the then 'Highways Board', their
preferred system of (cheaper) bituminous macadam or "Bitmac" has
been used instead. This method cannot produce 'invisible'
repairs, and inevitably even the most careful application and
compaction will lead to either a (more usual) raised lump or
following settlement, a sunken pit. Whilst much damage to the
road surface has been ignored, over the years there has been a
requirement to dig up small sections of the promenade for repair
to underground services, and patching following these
excavations, most notably on the northbound carriageway of Loch
Prom, has resulted in some of the most undulating and uneven
stretches. The most extreme example is the northbound carriageway
between the Jubilee clock and Regent Street. Another on the
southbound section is shown below.
In the years following the transfer of the Promenade maintenance to the Government, it would have been better practice to resurface entire sections, to maintain a pleasing appearance and a uniform surface, as happens elsewhere on the Island. Douglas Prom is not the only example of this neglect, though it is the most high profile. A few yards away are Victoria Street and Fort Street, the latter in a shocking state of disrepair. Whilst a lengthy root and branch reconstruction of the equally decrepit Peel Road recently cost £4M and took two years, work to quickly resurface Athol Street in 2014, shows what could be done in a couple of weeks.
In December 2010, Phil Gawne's Infrastructure Department issued its "Douglas Promenade Issues and Options" document, a lavishly illustrated 18-page analysis of the problem, including a four page questionnaire covering such aspects as "Roadway and Footway", "Aesthetics", "Tram Lines" and "Walkway". It asked that the questionnaire be returned by Friday 28th January 2011. The extent to which the responses to this questionnaire influenced what happened next may never be known, but shortly after came proposals to relocate the horse tramway on the promenade walkway and introduce 'traffic calming', 'shared space' and acres of granite block paving. Clearly somewhere in the 'consultation' process something had gone horribly wrong, as the proposals prompted an unprecedented tsunami of objections. A subsequent planning enquiry at a cost of £381,937 saw the glossy proposals thrown out in March 2016, sending the Department back to the drawing board.
As detailed elsewhere on this site, in January 2016 the Douglas Borough Council announced closure of the promenade Horse Tramway. On 24th March (two days after the announcement [sic] of the result of the Independent Planning Inspector's Report) news came that the Department of Infrastructure would take on responsibility for the operation of the Douglas Bay Horse Tram service for the 2016 season. This it duly did. Then in July saw another defeat for the Department when a vote in Tynwald rejected its proposals to close the Loch Promenade section of the horse line and instead back an amendment from Bill Malarkey MHK to retain the Horse Tramway in full.
Following the September General Election, the Department was back with yet more proposals for the Promenade. It started when, in November, it was announced that the northern section of Douglas Promenade was to be resurfaced as a temporary measure to improve the state of the road. New Infrastructure Minister Ray Harmer MHK said:
"The northern end of the Promenade is clearly in an unacceptable condition and I have requested that resurfacing takes place to make the road smoother and safer. It should be recognised that this is very much a short-term fix until the Department can progress a scheme for the full reconstruction of the Promenade."
And so it was that in very short order, a three-metre wide strip on either side of the tram tracks was resurfaced all the way from the foot of Summerhill (above) to just short of the Broadway lights. The edge of the roadway was left untouched, and whilst traffic enjoys a much smoother ride, parked cars sit on the original roadway. The treatment may have been cheap but adds to the unsightly patched effect that has marred the promenade for so long. But not to worry as, it is claimed that, the temporary resurfacing will only last "about two years". God knows what will happen when this too starts to fall apart.
Then at the December Tynwald the DoI put forward proposals to
once again "progress a scheme for the full reconstruction of the
Promenade" this time including a desire to rebuild the Horse
Tramway in the centre of the road (an option previously rejected
by - yes the DoI) but only as far as Broadway (rejected by
Tynwald in July), terminating in a so-called granite block
'cultural area' opposite the Villa/Gaiety. The granite-paved
amphitheatre nicknamed "Naffland" is, like much else, a
legacy of the nightmare first put forward in the glossy 2010
'options'. Whilst backing the retention of the trams on Queen's
and Central Promenade, Tynwald could not make its mind up on the
Loch Prom section, and as a result the decision was deferred
until January this year. Having 'rejected' in December an
amendment by North Douglas MHK David Ashworth to retain the
double tram tracks in the middle of Loch Prom, for procedural
reasons this was not 'on the table' in January, and so an
amendment for a single track on the sea side of the promenade was
put forward instead.
The amendment this time by East Douglas MHK (and former Sefton Hotel General Manager) Chris Robertshaw calling for this proposal to also include a new single tram line to be laid between the War Memorial and Sea Terminal was accepted and passed. In a combined vote of Members of Keys and Council, 17 members voted for the amendment - while 14 opposed.
Quite what happens next, apart from the temporary resurfacing, remains to be seen. The plan to alter the Horse Tramway to a single track will require planning permission and as this will involve substantial changes to the Promenade which is in a Conservation Area and will likely be opposed on that basis alone. Combine this with the fact that the DoI's "Douglas Promenade Options Review" suggests that a single line option on Loch Prom will lead to the loss of up to 91 car parking spaces, it may well draw objections from hoteliers and shopkeepers.
Thus the 'mess' has been compounded by what we have now which is a situation where Tynwald has created a contradictory proposal whereby centre double track is retained on the 'narrow' part of the prom and leaving parking unaffected (away from the shops), and going for a single seaward side track on the much wider Loch Prom causing maximum impact on parking adjacent to the hotels and shopping centre. Oh, and a need to go through what is likely to be a protracted and, not for the first time, ultimately unsuccessful planning process. Other than to avoid 'procedural' issues in Tynwald, a result of their own December vote fiasco, there is no point in a single track on Loch Prom.
So while the temporary resurfacing of Loch prom gets underway to enable the Department time to plan, cost, seek financial and planning approval for its single line alternative and the needless loss of 91 car parking spaces, the promenade problem, a bit like the trams, rumbles on.
There is a very simple answer. Retain the horse tramway for its full length, double track in the centre of the road. There is no loss of parking spaces and no need for planning permission. The rail for this has already been purchased and is in store on South Quay. Work can begin immediately.
This has to be the answer.
Meanwhile the future of the historic and inseparable Horse Tramway Stables and the Depot remains to be seen... "The Department is also exploring options for the storage, stabling and welfare facilities required to operate the horse tramway and will make an announcement about its preferred approach in the near future." As George Burns used to say: "Say good night to the folks, Gracie."