The last time North Yorkshire County Council’s Harrogate and Knaresborough Area Constituency Committee met at the Cairn Hotel in Harrogate to discuss the vital issue of traffic congestion, the result was one of the stormiest council meetings for years.
The question is whether next Thursday (November 8) will see a repeat performance when the same committee meets again at the same venue to discuss the same subject?
When local councillors saw the results of an in-depth study by consultants WSP, one of the world’s leading engineering professional services firms, into the issue of traffic in Harrogate last year, they baulked at any idea of a new relief road through residential areas in Bilton and the ancient nature spot of Nidd Gorge.
Under pressure from angry local residents groups and faced with figures showing how a relief road option would do little to help Harrogate itself because more than 90 per cent of journeys in Harrogate and Knaresborough were internal, councillors voted by 14 to two to support ‘sustainable’ transport measures only.
Partly as a result of the strength of the response, North Yorkshire County Council decided to postpone its planned public consultation on the traffic congestrion options to give officers and consultants more time to add more detail to the elements of the packages.
Having been engaged - again - in March, WSP has been carrying out this additional work ever since.
But their new report is now complete and the issue is back in the spotlight.
And the latest new 243-page Harrogate Congestion Study analyse more than simply Harrogate’s growing gridlock on its major roads.
North Yorkshire County Council is just as concerned about local economic growth and new housing as car journey times or air pollution.
One possible package focuses on managing demand and encouraging behavioural change.
The options in this package include developments in public transport and the cycling and walking infrastructure, measures to improve journey planning, extended pedestrianisation in central Harrogate, a congestion or low-emission zone and speed and weight limits.
The second package contains similar measures plus the option of an inner relief road.
The question once again is which direction to take.One thing is without question. Pressure for action is building.
County Councillor Don Mackenzie, North Yorkshire County Council's executive member for access, including highways, road and rail transport, said: “Congestion in Harrogate and Knaresborough is worse than anywhere else within the county council boundary, so much so that three air quality management action areas have been declared.
“Growth in housing and employment in the area is forecast to continue, with 11,700 houses and 20 to 25 hectares of new employment land anticipated by the end of the Local Plan period in 2035.
“Car journeys are forecast to peak at more than 27,000, an increase of almost 5,700 on current levels.”
Whatever happens at next Thursday’s meeting, there is no guarantee it will impact on the final decision.
The ultimate power rests in the hands of the county council’s ten-strong NYCC executive committee of councillors, which includes only two from Harrogate.
County Coun Don Mackenzie said: “The new report will be presented to the area constituency committees specifically to seek members’ views to inform the county council’s executive decision on whether to consult the 48,000 households in the Harrogate and Knaresborough area about the options in the two packages.
“We are at an early stage of what will be a long process. No decision has been taken on any option or package.
“We have listened to the views of interested local parties via an Engagement Group, which met as many as four times during the summer.”
Local residents groups remain concerned about where this is all leading.
Jemima Parker, the chair of Zero Carbon Harrogate, a local not-for-profit organisation dedicated to making Harrogate a net zero carbon district by 2035, said: “We were pleased that some stakeholders, including Zero Carbon Harrogate, were part of a consultation group to offer check and challenge on the process over the summer.
“But this was hardly a substitute for a proper open public consultation drawing on the local expertise and experience of all residents about the precious future for our towns.
“We would like to see the local NYCC Constituency Committee sending an unequivocal message of support for investment in sustainable transport measures for Harrogate and Knaresboeough to the NYCC Executive rather than a new road option.”
Murking the waters in the background is another long-running transport issue important to North Yorkshire, wrapped up in overall strategies and funding packages and political concepts like 'Northern Powerhouse'.
At the same time as the county council is discussing Harrogate and Knaresborough traffic congestion, its executive members are liaising with the Department of Transport about proposals for the creation of an MSN - or Major Road Network - in the north.
The Government's aims are wider than merely tackling congestion. The goal is to support economic growth, support the delivery of new housing and ‘rebalance the economy’.
The fact the chancellor announced a £30 billion investment package for the country’s transport network in Monday’s Budget, including a whopping £29 billion for the nation’s roads, may not have filled those opposed to a relief road full of hope.
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