Anyone who lives in, visits or merely drives through Harrogate on a regular basis needs no reminding of the town’s ever increasing problems with traffic.
The topic dominates the agendas of many Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce meetings as well as frequently appearing in the Advertiser’s letters pages.
When it comes to traffic, and potential solutions to reduce it, most eyes fall on Coun Don Mackenzie, North Yorkshire County Council’s executive member for Highways.
Coun Mackenzie has long blamed Harrogate’s traffic issues for stifling the town’s prosperity; mainly by impacting on the number of new homes being built.
A new relief road, at an estimated start cost of £70m, is Coun Mackenzie’s proposed solution to this problem but the plans have provoked substantial concerns from some quarters.
Here, the Advertiser investigates the possible advantages, disadvantages and timeline for building this substantial piece of infrastructure.
In October 2015, North Yorkshire County Council approved their Strategic Transport Prospectus, a 30-year strategy to improve transport links across the country.
As part of the Prospectus, the county council revealed that a new relief road for Harrogate would be a "top priority" to improve eat and west connectivity.
Speaking in October, Coun Mackenzie called the Prospectus a "timely piece of work" and said a new relief road would be the biggest investment in highway infrastructure since the Southern Bypass was built in the early 1990's.
Despite failing to construct a Western and Northern Bypass in the 1990's. Coun Mackenzie said that a potential new relief road would help to alleviate Harrogate's congestion problems.
He said: "The last time we brought in more infrastructure was the Southern Bypass 25 years ago.
"We have built thousands of home since then and there are thousands more with or awaiting planning permission.
"Harrogate has effectively to to deal with 21st century levels of traffic with a mid-20th century network of roads.
"I do believe that with all this extra development we need to improve the infrastructure."
The first meeting of the Relief Road Steering Group was held on September 7 consisting of Coun Mackenzie, Coun Rebecca Burnett and Coun Michael Harrison.
As part of its work, the Steering Group studied and commented upon a set of four route options for the road prepared by county council highway officers.
Each option has an indicative route set out with a forecast of its effect on traffic volumes but as of yet, no detailed maps have been outlined.
The four options include a Western Bypass (red) as proposed in the 1990s as well as a Northern Bypass (yellow) which would arc round the North of Harrogate and Knaresborough to link with the A59 at Goldsborough.
However, the options which showed the most positive effects for traffic on Harrogate’s existing roads were the two proposed Inner Northern Relief Roads.
The first (green) would pass between Harrogate and Knaresborough but would pass closer to Knaresborough and join the Southern Bypass at Thistle Hill.
While the steering group’s preferred route (blue) would be closer to Harrogate and would provide a link into Bilton.
The group explained that the third and fourth routes would provide a reduction in Skipton Road traffic of up to 40 per cent and up to 30 per cent for Wetherby Road.
Area Committee Meeting
Following the publication of these indicative maps in September, controversy and concern has grown among residents and organisations potentially affected by the road.
More than 100 anxious residents packed into the Ripon Spa Hotel on Thursday, November 17 where the plans were being discussed at a Harrogate Area Committee meeting.
Despite this being the first time the plans had been discussed between county council members, residents were informed early that this was not a public meeting.
Coun Michael Harrison, Committee chair, explained that the meeting was merely to update members on the process of the review.
Andrew Bainbridge, team leader for Transport Planning, explained that the review would be looking into the need for an alignment of the Harrogate Relief Road.
He said: “This meeting is not intended to highlight the merits of a relief road or to debate the pros and cons of a route. It’s the very start of the process.
“There is a still a significant amount of work to do, to see if a relief road is an appropriate solution to traffic congestion and if so, what’s the best option?
“Our work is balance the traffic benefits against the environmental disbenefits. These route corridors have no official status us and are just of interest for investigation.”
Traffic surveys conducted by the county council have found that most of the town’s traffic was generated by local journeys from residents within Harrogate and Knaresborough.
As a result, these surveys showed that an inner relief road would provide the highest benefit to traffic reduction by around 20 to 40 per cent.
Bypass routes, including both the red and yellow routes, takes away traffic which has no desire to be in the town and would provide fewer benefits than a relief road.
However, the documented advantages of the blue and green routes has raised considerable concerns with a number of councillors, residents and interests groups.
Keith Wilkinson, chairman of the Bilton Conservation Group, was one of ten people to speak out against the proposals during the Area Committee meeting.
Mr Wilkinson warned that should the relief road be built on the blue or green routes, it would threaten the work that has gone into preserving the Nidd Gorge.
He said: “The Woodlands Trust is particularly concerned. The Trust, Harrogate Borough Council and Bilton Conservation Group has worked in partnership to protect the Nidd Gorge since 1983.
“The Nidd Gorge’s wildlife values are exceptional but if the route goes ahead and then there is development, then our 34 years of hard work will vaporise.
“All of that work could be lost if the blue or green route goes ahead. It will be a huge waste of human effort and it would also decimate the greenway.
“It’s hard to overstate the case. We are all utterly devastated with the proposals and what’s worse is it seems to be long in the planning.”
Mr Wilkinson warned that 43,000 trees planted by the Woodland Trust would be destroyed by the routes, adding he would be horrified if their work was ignored.
“It is vitally important the committee is aware of the fragility of ancient woodland, both in terms of any direct impacts, but also indirect, from issues such as light, noise and air pollution,” he added.
Why it’s needed
Coun Mackenzie said he sympathised with Bilton residents’ fears of the possible impact of an Inner Relief Road but stressed infrastructure was still needed.
He said: “I was cabinet member for transport in Harrogate and was part of the team that got approval for the greenway and saw it built.
“I am the last person that would wish to do anything that would harm this facility. But, if the option is to build this between Harrogate and Knaresborough then we will have to decide the how the greenway will work.
“But, we are a long way off that. The Nidderdale Greenway is absolutely vital to our cycling infrastructure and I would not want to do any harm to that.”
Members of Harrogate Green Party used the meeting as an opportunity to raise concerns over the impact of any new road being built on air quality issues.
Air Quality Management Areas (AQMA) have already been declared in Bond End and York Place but Coun Mackenzie said a new road could alleviate these problems.
He said: “I know there are those that think there is no need for an extra road and that we can improve congestion by giving people more of an incentive to use sustainable transport or public transport.
“Whilst I agree with those views to a certain extent, I don’t believe that will relieve the congestion.
“If we decide we are going ahead with the route, then we have to choose one which has the greatest affect on alleviating congestion.
“In particular the A59 from Knaresborough to Starbeck to Harrogate and Skipton Road from the Empress Roundabout to New Park.
“It’s not just because of people wasting time in traffic jams but also because of air pollution.
“It’s a problem in Bond End, York Place and on the Empress Roundabout and we have a duty to work with Harrogate Borough Council to take traffic away from those areas.”
“Destroying Old Bilton”
Whilst the county council has not yet published any detailed maps or routes for the proposed options, an Inner Relief Road would clearly have serious implications for Bilton.
Both the blue and green routes could include a link road into the area, with objectors concerned that this would affect local businesses, homes and traffic.
However, ward councillor, Coun Val Rodgers, said that many residents were wary of any road being built would open up the Bilton Triangle for development.
She said: “Residents are gravely concerned about where this is going to be built,whether it will affect their property and whether it will cause planning blight.
“I’m also worried that if it is built there, it will open up the Bilton Triangle which is completely landlocked at the moment.
“If that’s really what the relief road is for then this will not help any traffic flow and will make things a lot worse for the people of Bilton.
“There is not one person I have spoken to here who has thought this is a good idea. They are going to ruin Old Bilton with this plan.”
However, no residential development has been set out in this area in the Draft Local Plan and Coun Mackenzie disputed the claim the route will open it up for housing.
He said: “Some people have said that they’ve seen, like with the bypass in York, that it tends to attract more development close to it.
“My own view is that this land is protected by greenbelt. It’s straightforward to put a road through there but not residential development.
“Once you have got greenbelt protection against residential and commercial development then you would not end up with a situation like the York bypass which attracted development.”
Bypass not relief road
Despite the survey’s results showing that a relief road would have greater traffic benefits than Northern or Western Bypass, many have questioned its findings.
County Councillor David Simister (UKIP, Bilton & Nidd Gorge) has been a leading voice for a bypass in Harrogate for a number of years.
When the plans were announced in October last year, Coun Simister said Harrogate was in “desperate need” for a bypass as county council improvements had provided no benefits.
However, Coun Simister has now opposed plans for a relief road to be built through Bilton and Nidd Gorge and questioned the make up of the steering group.
He said: “When I said that Harrogate needed a bypass, that’s what I meant. We don’t need a relief road which will unlock land in the Bilton Triangle.
“Over the coming months there will be a lot of opposition to the Inner Relief Road because the Nidd Gorge and the greenway are much loved areas.
“At the moment you can’t get to the land in the Bilton Triangle because there are no direct transport links but if there’s a relief road there then it’s a different animal.
“If they want to improve traffic within Harrogate then put the lights at Station Parade back to how they were and make a dual carriage way up Cheltenham Parade.”
Coun Rodgers has also backed plans for a bypass to divert traffic around the outskirts of Harrogate, rather than through Bilton and Nidd Gorge.
“If I thought this route would help traffic flow and congestion then I might be convinced but I do wonder about its benefits,” Coun Rodgers explained.
“To me it does not make any sort of sense, and I’m sure that they have proposed this route to open up development in the Bilton Triangle.”
Coun Simister also criticised the Conservative make up of the Steering Group and said an important issue such as this needed a cross-party approach.
The initial basic cost estimate for a relief road is around £70m - £100m and, should this proceed, the county council would need to make a bid to central government for this funding.
A consultation is now expected to take place late next year before the county council takes any decision.
However, during the Harrogate Area Committee meeting, the county council was called on to hold an imminent public meeting.
Mr Wilkinson said: “The whole thing does have the appearance of a done deal, just as it did in 1986, some people are saying it has the appearance of fait accompli.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors. The people are not prepared to sit and wait. They want to know the focus of the routes now.
“The only hope of stopping this nightmare is for all of us to get together and fight because there are so many people up in arms about it. “
Mr Bainbridge stressed that all four options would be investigated thoroughly by the Steering Group and warned a potential high court challenge would follow if this was not done.
However, Coun Mackenzie said there was no need for a public meeting at this early stage in proceedings.
He said: “We would not even know what we would be discussing at a public meeting. It could even be the fact that we are not having a relief road at all.
“But I have promised local residents there will be plenty of opportunities for consultation in future, not just during the public consultation but also by holding public meetings.”
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