Letter: Covid era is not time to ban cars on streets

Reader letter from Coun Nick Brown, Former Mayor of Harrogate.

Thursday, 17th September 2020, 2:18 pm
Updated Thursday, 17th September 2020, 2:22 pm
Former Mayor of Harrogate Coun Nick Brown says now is not the time to pedestrianise streets in the town centre, as more people rely on their cars for transport in the era of Covid-19

During the Harrogate Borough Council (HBC) Overview and Scrutiny Commission meeting on August 28, I questioned Council Leader Richard Cooper about the impending ‘trial’ pedestrianisation of James Street in the town centre and its impact on Harrogate’s retail businesses.

I am concerned that this ‘trial’, allegedly introduced for reasons of safety during the Covid-19 pandemic, is only the start of full-scale pedestrianisation of central Harrogate, as outlined in the Harrogate ‘masterplan’ produced in 2016. It seems it also forms part of the council’s goal of becoming the first ‘carbon neutral’ borough in the UK, by minimising car use in central Harrogate.

Much has changed in retail since 2016, with the rise of internet shopping, accelerated by the Covid lockdown since March this year.

Sadly, retail in central Harrogate is suffering badly. Now is not the time to deliver it a further body blow by pedestrianising the town centre.

I believe that the 2016 masterplan, which promotes further widespread pedestrianisation in central Harrogate, is totally out of date and will not serve local businesses well. It may be relevant and have merit sometime in the future but certainly not now, when our retailers need all the help from us that they can get .

For many years shoppers, including residents and tourists in large numbers, have used their cars to come into central Harrogate from across our rural borough and further afield. Their spending has created for Harrogate a reputation as a great place for a day out shopping, which is the envy of many other towns.

Reducing parking spaces, creating an abundance of traffic cones and pursuing an anti-car agenda near to the best of Harrogate’s retail offering will severely affect trade, just when these businesses need it most.

The age profile of the average shopper in Harrogate is quite high and the use of our shops by these, typically high-spending, customers is not compatible with the notion that everyone can walk or cycle to the town centre, especially during the North Yorkshire winter which will soon be upon us.

This trendy ‘green’ concept, together with reductions in effective public transport across the district have, I believe, led to an increase in car use. Furthermore, many people are now wary of using public transport, because of the risk of catching Covid-19.

Right now, we should be encouraging visitors by car to make use of our shops. The Covid pandemic is actually a strong counter-argument to the pedestrianisation foreseen by the 2016 masterplan.

It is already clear that, due to the pandemic, unemployment in the private sector is rising and will continue to do so for some time. Many retail shops have closed in central Harrogate, even before Covid, and further staff reductions will, sadly, have to be faced.

Do HBC councillors, of whatever party, want to exacerbate this decline still further and add to the woes of retailers at this current time?

It seems to me that our retailers will be adversely affected by the decisions of councillors who are promoting this pedestrianisation scheme, many of whom have little or no experience of retailing themselves and simply do not understand the sector and the impact the pandemic has had on it.

I wonder if my fellow councillors really want a legacy of business failures and increased unemployment on their conscience? I believe that this will be the price of a car-free town centre at this time.

Before they proceed with even a partial pedestrianisation of the town centre, I have a few questions that I feel my council colleagues should answer, in public, regarding this ‘trial’ pedestrianisation in James Street.

Firstly, what economic modelling or research has the council’s ‘Place Shaping and Economic Growth Unit’ done into the current effects of further pedestrianising the central shopping area of Harrogate, especially relating to shopping ‘footfall’?

Secondly, what consultation has actually taken place, by Harrogate Borough Council itself, with actual shop owners and landlords in James Street, in relation to this ‘trial’? To my knowledge, after HBC requested that the Harrogate BID group support their proposal to NYCC for pedestrianisation, the BID group did a quick mini straw poll, the results of which have not been published. This did not cover all of the parties who are actually responsible for the success of the shopping experience in this part of the centre of Harrogate.

If a proper and professional consultation was not undertaken by HBC, as a responsible local authority, then I ask, why not? Unless the council can demonstrate that business ratepayers and other affected parties were properly consulted and overwhelmingly support what is proposed, I would contend that an immediate halt should be made to this ‘trial’ until we know the views of the retail experts about the harm that this will cause.

I fear that the scheme is becoming a ‘fait accompli’, since many of the new ‘Appy Parking’ sensors in James Street have already been taken up. Why and at what cost, if this is only a ‘trial’?

As a councillor who prefers to put serving the residents and businesses of the Harrogate District ahead of party political agendas, I often find myself a lone voice and in a minority of one on the council, as indeed I do on this issue.

Last week I made a point of walking round the whole of the centre of Harrogate. Our town centre is in decline, accelerated by Covid. Now is not the time to deal it the death-blow of pedestrianisation.

Let’s invest instead in helping our retailers by improving the unkempt state of public areas such as Cambridge St and Oxford St, which I am certain they would support.