A rescue package of £40,000 has been set aside to salvage some of Harrogate’s historic street lamps. But is it enough? RUBY KITCHEN reports:
A contentious scheme to scrap Harrogate’s old Victorian street lamps after they were branded a safety hazard sparked outrage when it was first announced.
To do so would chip away at Harrogate’s heritage, said furious campaigners, calling instead for the characterful cast-iron lamps to be preserved whatever the cost.
Now, after the debate raged in the Advertiser letters pages, Harrogate Borough Council (HBC) has stepped in to offer an alternative. Funds of £40,000 have now been set aside to re-clad and redecorate 100 of the 900 most visible street lamps to give the new ones a vintage look. And the authority’s leader has said he is committed to looking again at the issue in the long term, considering if more can be saved as further funds become available.
“It’s a start,” said Coun Richard Cooper, (Cons, High Harrogate). “We want to keep Harrogate a distinctive place, not make it the same as any other town in Britain.
“It all adds to the ambience of the area. You may not notice the street lamps in isolation, but take them away and it all adds up.”
Around 100 of the town’s most prominent lights - in the centre and around the Stray - are soon to be re-clad in an imitation of the old-style Victorian lamps.
Coun Cooper said that while the council cannot save all the street lamps, he isn’t ruling out finding further funds in the future.
“I’m committed to looking at it. It’s my intention to do so,” he said. “We should care about how the town looks, to outsiders and to ourselves. People won’t come here, and spend their tourist cash, if it looks like any other town.”
The move has come after weeks of furious debate.
The proposals, first announced in the Advertiser in early June, would see the town’s 900 Victorian street lamps scrapped over the course of coming years.
Having stood for around 150 years, said North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) decision makers, they were now a “significant safety risk” and must be replaced.
The move sparked outrage from civic groups who called for an urgent re-think.
“Is it too much to ask that if they must replace our historic lamp posts, that they make some attempt to replicate the original designs, and not to fob us off with these ghastly poles?” said district historian Malcolm Neesam.
And civic groups said it was important to the heritage of the town that these old-style lamps are maintained - whatever the cost.
“Nobody is happy,” said Henry Pankhurst of Harrogate Civic Society. “The exchange is whittling away at the conservation area.”
Now, as funds are set aside to refurbish 100 of the 900 lamps, critics say more needs to be done before a victory can be claimed.
“Far from being saved, they are being replaced with pale imitations that are going to cost the tax payers of the district tens-of-thousands-of-pounds,” said County Coun David Simister, (UKIP, Harrogate, Bilton & Nidd Gorge). “He calls it a start. Not for the cast iron lampposts that are to be torn from the pavements it isn’t. It’s the end of the road for them!”
North Yorkshire County Council’s stance
“The current replacement programme is not a knee jerk response to recent problems,” said David Bowe, corporate director business and environmental services.
“The structural and electrical hazards within these columns present an immediate risk.”
A detailed survey was commissioned after several “catastrophic failures”, he said, adding that the results were “very concerning”.
The survey had found some lamps with snapped columns, others with the lanterns left hanging from an aging cable.
They needed to be earthed, and some, the survey found were a significant electrical hazards.
On some occasions, Mr Bowe added, operatives had suffered electrical shocks while trying to maintain them.
And regardless of the immediate electrical and structural issues, he said, the old street lamps were still too close to the curb.
There were three options, he said. To replace the lamps with new ones, at a cost £900 each, to replace like for like at £1,800, or to repair them at a cost £2,000 plus.
“The county council is prepared to pay £900 per column,” he said. “Any additional funding would need to come from a third party.”
Coun Dadd’s letter
County Coun Gareth Dadd, executive member for highways, prompted a fierce debate in the Advertiser letters page after writing: “The columns pose a potential threat to public safety, and must be replaced. It is a pity that the realities of public spending in 2014 appear to be lost on some of your readers. It is impossible to justify spending so much more of the taxpayers’ money for purely aesthetic reasons.”
This week, when approached again for comment, he said: “If it’s done one thing, the letter fuelled the debate and opened up questions about priorities for local authority spending in these austere times.
“In some ways it has been misinterpreted. Some Harrogate residents took it as being patronising or abusive. That wasn’t the intention.
“The intention was to highlight the very difficult choices that we as a county council are having to make with very limited budgets, putting key priorities such as education and social care alongside needs that are more aesthetic.”
The policy was being put in place across the county, he added, including in Scarborough, and the authority had to be consistent.
“Over the years, there has been thousands of these decorative lamps removed by Harrogate Borough Council,” he said. “It seems to me that the county council are taking all the flack for something that has gone on unnoticed for many years.”
A crash which left live wires exposed - posing a potentially lethal threat - has demonstrated how dangerous these old lamp posts can be, the county council has said.
The lamp post on Unity Grove in Harrogate was struck in a crash sometime on Saturday evening, officers believe, although the damage wasn’t reported until Monday morning.
“During the impact, the old cast iron lighting column snapped in half exposing a live electricity company cable at just over head height, well within a child’s reach,” a spokesman said.
“The cable remained ‘live’ throughout the incident and subsequently posed a very real danger of serious and possibly fatal electrocution.”
Northern Powergrid staff were called in to help, isolating the supply and making it safe.
“This incident underlines many of the issues extant in the cast iron columns in Harrogate,” said officers.
“It is estimated that the section that snapped off weighed in excess of 70kg, this was removed from the scene of the incident by an unknown party.”
How the campaign played out
l May 29 - Advertiser series revealed the controversial county council plans to scrap the area’s old Victorian street lamps and replace them with modern ones after branding them a “significant safety hazard”.
l June 5 - The debate steps up in the Advertiser letters pages, campaigners calling for common sense to preserve this historic aspect of Harrogate’s heritage.
l June 12 - County councillor Gareth Dadd, executive member for highways, wrote a letter to the Advertiser which sparked a flurry of furious responses.
l June 19 - Urgent meetings were set up between Harrogate Borough Council and North Yorkshire County Council to try and find a solution, asking for the proceeds from the sale of the cast-iron lamps be used to fund embellishment.
l June 26 - A five week suspension was granted to HBC as it sought further funds to save the lights. Around 100 lamps were identified as a priority to re-clad.
l July 3 - The campaign reaches Government level as Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones writes to Secretary of State Eric Pickles to call for tighter laws to save such items of historic value to communities.
l July 17 - HBC cabinet agreed to set aside funds of £40,000 to re-clad around 100 of the town’s most visible street lamps.
l Now - Work began again on Monday this week to restart NYCC’s replacement programme. Around 200 have already been replaced. A further 200 to 240 columns are to be removed by the end of the year.
What do you think?
The policy has been put in place across the county, the county council has said, including in Scarborough, and the authority has to be consistent with policies across North Yorkshire. In fact, NYCC’s Coun Dadd has said, the policy isn’t a new one and has been in operation at various times in recent years. “Over the years, there has been thousands of these decorative lamps removed by Harrogate Borough Council,” he said. “It seems to me that the county council are taking all the flack for something that has gone on unnoticed for many years.”
l What do you think? The debate has raged for week’s in the Advertiser’s letters page, with dozens of letters in favour of the proposals, against them, and with alternative solutions. Have your say - and join the debate. Could more be done to save Harrogate’s street lights? Should more be done, or is it not a sensible use of taxpayers’ cash in these tough times?
l Have your say, write to 1 Cardale Park, HG3 1RZ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.