A61: How Harrogate Gateway project has opened an old wound on traffic congestion

The debate over the Harrogate Gateway project to cut car traffic and improve the town centre - and whether that requires change on the A61 - may be hot right now but the spark was lit 50 years ago, writes Graham Chalmers.

Friday, 25th June 2021, 12:49 pm
Updated Friday, 25th June 2021, 12:52 pm
A61 nostalgia: Back to the early 1970s and an archive photo from the North Yorkshire County Record Office after the switch to one-way traffic was made on the A61 at Parliament Street.

The pages of the Harrogate Advertiser have been ablaze in recent weeks with complaints about the £11 million Gateway plans by North Yorkshire County Council to improve Harrogate town centre in a less car-friendly way and pleas to reverse the one-way traffic system on the A61.

Should streets such as Station Parade and James Street be subject to new restrictions on cars to reduce carbon emissions and create a more pedestrian and cycling friendly town centre?

Should a two-way system be reintroduced to Parliament Street and West Park on the A61 as part of an alternative to the main parts of the £11 million Gateway project?

A glance at this newspaper’s archives reveals the sudden outbreak of A61 nostalgia is not built on an entirely new argument.

In a way, Gateway has accidentally reopened an old wound.

Fifty years ago the focal point for some people’s anger and other people’s dreams over major changes for the town centre lay in much the the same location, though the cause back in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a “five-phased Traffic Management Scheme”.

As the headlines of the time in the Harrogate Advertiser show, the scale of the clamour to block this radical shake-up of central Harrogate was so strong that the plans were scaled back to their first phase only.

But that one step taken half a century ago - to re-route southbound traffic on the A61 away from Parliament Street and West Park up to Station Parade by creating the one-way system drivers face today - has proved to be a pivotal moment.

It’s an issue still quoted by today’s campaigners as part of their arguments for amending the Gateway project.

Playing a key part then, as now, were the members of Harrogate Civic Society.

In fact, the group, which fights to protect the special character and environment of Harrogate, was formed in 1970 specifically to oppose the scheme which it complained would involve the “destruction” of the town.

Rather than it being the vision of North Yorkshire County Council in conjunction with Harrogate Borough Council, as Gateway is now, the controversy was the work of West Riding County Council, which was living on borrowed time before local government reorganisation in 1974.

The product of the bolder days of the late 1960s when concrete construction and ‘Brutalist architecture’ were all the rage, the five-phased Traffic Management Scheme would have seen a much more radical restructuring of Harrogate town centre than the Gateway now promises.

But, as soon as Phase One was introduced for the A61, there was a public outcry.

More than 10,000 people signed a petition against the whole traffic scheme led by future members of Harrogate Civic Centre.

The negative headlines about the project also piled up in the Harrogate Advertiser throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, having their own effect, too.

Soon any idea of implementing the four remaining phases was abandoned.

Although phase one went ahead in 1970, the rest of the five phases envisaged by West Riding County Council did not.

Northbound traffic on the A61 would not be sent down Montpellier Hill and by the Royal Pump Room.

Southbound traffic would not be routed by Bower Road and East Parade, allowing pedestrianisation of parts of Station Parade and Parliament Street.

There would be no dual carriageway leaving Ripon Road north of the Majestic before passing through Strawberry Dale and East Parade to join York Place.

York Place and Leeds Road would also not become dual carriageways.

Finally, the idea of redeveloping the Royal Baths area and creating a new cultural and civic centre to bring Harrogate’s library, theatre, court house and rates office into a single concrete complex never happened.

Today’s plans in the Gateway project may not seem as extreme but the reaction in places has been almost as vociferous with opponents often concerned with their potential impact on James Street.

It was here that in 1970 the first meeting of Harrogate Civic Society took place in the studio of Walter Davey, who ran a photography business on the street.

Although the then-new group’s campaign was successful overall, it did not succeeed in stopping the A61 changes.

Introduced at the time as a “six month trial”, it has now been 50 years since two-way traffic was seen on Parliament Street.

Writing of those early battles, Harrogate Civic Society member Michael Laycock issued a warning from history:

“I believe that, if only one tenth of those who signed that petition had protested before councillors made up their minds, Phase One would never have happened.”

That was then, this is now: What impact would the current £11m ‘Gateway’ project have on Harrogate traffic and congestion

Bolstered with £11million in Government money and public support from previous consultations, the biggest changes for Harrogate town centre envisaged by the Gateway project would see one lane traffic on Station Parade and pedestrianisation on roads including James Street.

A range of civic voices may be calling for a £50,000 feasibility study into bringing two-way traffic back to the A61 at Parliament Street and West Park as a solution to keeping traffic moving after roads are closed.

But the project’s driving force, North Yorkshire Council, says not only would the A61 idea not reduce congestion overall in Harrogate town centre, it is also unnecessary. It argues it already has plans to ensure the flow of traffic after Gateway.

Coun Don Mackenzie, the county council’s executive member for transport, confirmed there was a list of planned road improvements and junction changes ready for the Station Parade area under Gateway, these included works at the following areas of the town:

Cheltenham Mount/ Cheltenham Parade;

Bower Road/ Station Parade;

Cheltenham Mount/ Bower Road/ Mount Parade - including no entry for westbound traffic on to Cheltenham Mount from Bower Road;

Cheltenham Parade/ Station Parade;

James Street/ Princes Street;

Albert Street/ Station Parade/ Station Bridge - one way direction on Albert Street reversed;

Station Bridge/ East Parade.

Coun Mackenzie has said he would be willing to look again at the A61 issue at some point in the future, but only once the key objectives on sustainable transport had been achieved successfully.

Coun Mackenzie said: “I can envisage a situation in the future when car use has declined markedly in favour of public transport and sustainable travel that it may be appropriate to reinstate two-way traffic on Parliament Street and West Park.”

A61: What campaigners argue

To local groups such as Harrogate Civic Society - and many readers of the Harrogate Advertiser - it’s simply a matter of common sense to bring an end to the one-way section which currently runs along West Park and Parliament Stree

One recent letter writer, David Turner Rhodes, who was the council’s head of conservation and design from 1990 to 2005, said: “It seems only logical to face up to a 21st century lifestyle for Harrogate and review the suitability of a simple two-way traffic flow for the A61 through Harrogate.

“Driving north from Leeds, the two-way traffic works perfectly well up to the Prince of Wales roundabout and, again, after Parliament Street, two -way traffic flows well north towards Ripon.”

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