Column: Transport Talk with Don Mackenzie, NYCC Councillor for Highways
I am grateful to the Harrogate Advertiser for giving me the opportunity to report regularly on highways and transport matters in Harrogate District and wider afield in North Yorkshire.
This column is intended not only to give reports but also to receive readers’ questions and comments and to bring North Yorkshire County Council’s management of highways and transport closer to the users, the taxpayers who pay for it all.
I make clear from the outset that elected members like me decide council policy, whilst officers employed for their professional skills and experience are responsible for the day to day operation of the service. That said, I will be happy to provide answers and explanations for both policy and delivery, and it is on that basis that I have been given this opportunity.
Last month county councillors gave unanimous approval to the latest draft Local Transport Plan, effective from April 1, 2016. This will see us through the next 30 years, with reviews every five years.
I believe the longer timeline is better. Large infrastructure schemes take many years to reach completion and a 30-year programme should be long enough to see major improvement works for the local area through to their conclusion. The county has already identified several of these, and the top priorities happen to be here in the Harrogate District:
An A59 relief road to bypass Harrogate.
Climbing lanes on the A59 between Harrogate and Skipton including rerouting at Kex Gill.
Fundamental upgrading of the Harrogate rail line including double-tracking east of Knaresborough.
North Yorkshire County Council currently spends about £75m on highways and transport every year. This goes towards maintenance of the highways (we have almost 6,000 miles), footways (almost 3,000 miles), bridges (about 2,000), street lights, traffic management, gullies, and public and community transport. Concessionary fares cost us more than £8m per year, the difference between what we receive from Government in grant and what we hand over to bus operators in payment for bus pass journeys.
Responses to the LTP4 consultation agreed fixing potholes and keeping our roads safe were the top priorities, and indeed we spent an additional £10m last year doing just that, and, with help from Government, we plan to spend an additional £50m over the next four years on road repairs.
Where will the additional funding for the much needed improvements come from? Some will come from developers in contributions they have to make to gain planning permission for big housing schemes. The rest will come from successful bids for Local Growth Fund money made available by Government through the Local Enterprise Partnership. Recent examples include the Bedale and Leeming Bar bypass currently under construction, and the double-tracking of the rail line east of Knaresborough due to be completed by 2019, both schemes receiving funding from North Yorkshire County Council.
NYCC highways officers are currently preparing a bid to divert the A59 away from Kex Gill, and preparatory work is starting on a preferred route for an A59 relief road to bypass Harrogate. I will chair regular meetings of a working group made up of local councillors, supported by officers, to consider matters such as whether the route should be to the north of Harrogate and Knaresborough, or would there be greater benefit in directing it between the two towns.
At the start of winter, we had 55,000 tonnes of salt in our barns. So far the need for gritting this winter has been quite low. The challenges have come rather from excessive rainfall. Flooding led to the closure of 22 roads and several bridges in the borough in late December and early January, 1,000 sand bags were deployed by our officers and contractors, who responded to 80 emergency calls between Christmas Day and New Year. All routes but one were re-opened quickly with no lasting damage. The exception was the A59, which was closed at Kex Gill on January 5, when our monitors detected movement in the steep slope above the highway. Our engineers were able to re-open this important trans-Pennine route on February 27 after drainage and stabilisation work costing more than £0.5m.
I pay tribute to local residents along the A59 and especially to those businesses whose livelihoods depend on passing trade. Everyone showed great patience and understanding.
I close this first report by reminding readers of the editor’s wish that I respond openly to your questions and comments. I will be very pleased to do that.