Traffic wars: What is at heart of Harrogate business community versus Gateway project dispute

It is now almost certain that Harrogate town centre will see its biggest investment for more than 30 years in a major shake-up to its existing traffic system.

By Graham Chalmers
Thursday, 20th January 2022, 10:41 am
The future of Harrogate town centre?  The £10.9 million Gateway project aims to improve transport connectivity, bring more sustainable travel and boost the local economy.
The future of Harrogate town centre? The £10.9 million Gateway project aims to improve transport connectivity, bring more sustainable travel and boost the local economy.

The £10.9 million Gateway project promises improved transport connectivity, more sustainable travel and a boost for the local economy - or that’s the belief of county councillors behind the controversial proposals which are expected to clear the final planning hurdle next week.

But that’s not the way Harrogate’s leading business groups see it, even though the proposed changes for the town centre, which are also backed by Harrogate Borough Council,,are being paid for by the Government’s Transforming Cities Fund.

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After a new report this week recommended taking Gateway forward to the next stage, Harrogate Business Improvement District (BID), Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce and Independent Harrogate fired off an angry letter to councillors on North Yorkshire County Council’s Executive who will make the decision at a meeting next Tuesday.

In exasperated tones, the business leaders claim the town’s views have been sidelined during the more-than-year-long process and there is a lack of economic evidence to support the proposals.

The joint-letter from the three organisations says: “The views of the business community have been continually ignored, as have those of other key organisations, in particular Harrogate Civic Society, residents’ organisations and individuals, who believe what is being proposed will not bring the benefits being espoused.

“An economic impact survey has not been undertaken, yet we have been told the Gateway project will be good for business.”

Coun Don Mackenzie, the county council’s executive member for transport, says the council had produced an 18-page report into the economic case and the process to get to this point had included plenty of public consultation.

He added: “We want to encourage more people to travel by foot, bike and public transport because it is good for health and the environment by promoting fitness and reducing congestion,” said Coun Mackenzie.

“The spending will also provide a welcome boost for our town centres after two difficult years of trading during the pandemic.”

Despite the controversy, North Yorkshire County Council has at no point shown any sign of backing down on the Gateway project, although it has amended some of its original proposals as a result of a series of public consultations.

In a new report published this week, North Yorkshire County Council’s Executive is being recommended to take the proposals forward to the detailed design stage to be ready for implementation and for a final business case to be prepared for work to begin.

The plans, part of an overall £42m package of similar sustainable transport infrastructure improvements for North Yorkshire towns such as Selby and Skipton, include:

Improved railway and bus station frontages with better access for walking and cycling;

Improved facilities for walking and cycling in the town centre;

Improvements to public spaces in the town;

Less priority for car traffic on certain streets.

Such is the heat in the debate, recent months have seen dark mutterings of a potential legal challenge to Gateway from opponents in Harrogate’s business community.

The deepest faultline appears to lie in Harrogate business leaders’ hostility to Gateway’s central aim - to give greater priority to new cycle lanes, public transport and pedestrians over cars.

In particular, there are two specific plans which set alarm bells ringing for Harrogate BID, Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce and Independent Harrogate:

Plans to narrow the A61 on Station Parade from two lanes to one;

Plans to pedestrianise James Street.

Business leaders argue this will simply increase traffic congestion on neighbouring streets and deter existing shoppers and visitors coming to the town centre.

But the Gateway backers say there can be no switch to a sustainable transport future without road changes and more priority for buses, cyclists and pedestrians - and that retaining the status quo in Harrogate town centre is a dangerous idea in the face of growing threats to the high street economy.

Should, as is expected, North Yorkshire County Council’s executive decide to take the proposals forward to detailed design stage next week all that will remain to be done is the submission of a business case to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, which is administering funds on behalf of the Department for Transport.

But, such is the strength of feeling against the Gateway project in the Harrogate business world, who can say for certain if this will really be the end of this lengthy saga?

Harrogate Gateway project: What supporters say

North Yorkshire County Council’s case for the £10.9 million Gateway project for the Station Parade area in Harrogate includes:

Economic benefits for the town centre outlined in its 18-page report “Harrogate Station Gateway Transforming Cities Fund Scheme Economic Case”;

Gateway is not solely about creating new cycle lanes, it will boost public transport usage and general connectivity, improve the public realm and raise the attractiveness of the town centre, creating a higher-quality environment for residents, businesses and visitors alike;

The county council says reducing Station Parade to one lane would only increase average car journey times in the area by 53 seconds or 1 minute 14 seconds with James Street fully pedestrianised.

Coun Don Mackenzie, North Yorkshire County Council’s executive member for transport, said: “These proposals represent the biggest investment in Harrogate town centre in decades and aim to increase productivity by making it quicker, easier and safer for people to travel around and connect with economic opportunities.

"We want to encourage more people to travel by foot, bike and public transport because it is good for health and the environment by promoting fitness and reducing congestion. The spending will also provide a welcome boost for our town centres after two difficult years of trading during the pandemic.

“We will be taking business views into account when we determine our response to the report’s recommendations.

“We have set out the economic impact case in an 18-page document which is included in the agenda for next week.

"We have listened to feedback from the public consultations and are confident people will be pleased with the results.

“These proposals will provide a welcome boost for the town centre after two difficult years during the pandemic.

“The entire project is a great example of partnership working and is set to deliver real benefits to residents and businesses across our county."

Why Harrogate business groups oppose the Gateway project

Councillors on North Yorkshire County Council’s Executive received a joint-letter this week heavily critical of plans for the Gateway project.

Signed by David Simister, chief executive of Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce; Sara Ferguson, chair of Harrogate BID and Robert Ogden, co-founder of Independent Harrogate, its main complaints included:

“For the last two years, town centre businesses have suffered at the hands of the Covid pandemic and now you are proposing to add at least another 12-months of major disruption and misery (caused by the construction work involved if the Gateway project goes ahead).

“The views of the business community have been continually ignored.

“Last November, Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce held a well-attended meeting dedicated to the Project.

“It was clear from the questions asked, and a vote at the end of the meeting, that the majority were against the project.

“Earlier last year we responded as separate organisations to the initial Gateway public survey, giving well-reasoned suggestions and alternatives to some of what was being proposed.

“Later in the year, we conducted a joint-survey.

“Of those who responded, the vast majority were against two key elements of Gateway - the narrowing of the A61 from two lanes to one and the pedestrianisation of James Street.”

“We are told Gateway will encourage those who live close to the town centre to leave the car at home and travel in by bus, bicycle or on foot. What it fails to do is take into account those tens-of-thousands of visitors who come here from outside the district.

“How many of these visitors travel here by bus, train, bicycle or on foot?”

"An economic impact survey has not been undertaken, yet we have been told how the Gateway project will be good for business.

“The Tory Party, of which you are members, prided itself on being the party of business. This doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.”