Hot Seat: the youthful councillor leading transport in North Yorkshire
Last updated Jan 28, 2023

Keane Duncan is only 28 but he has already packed a lot into his political career.

At 19 he was selected as a Conservative candidate for election on to Ryedale District Council. The following year he was elected and at 24 he became council leader.

At 22, he became the youngest ever North Yorkshire county councillor and after being re-elected in May last year he was appointed executive member for highways and transportation — the most high profile role on the executive besides the leader. Criticism — often fierce — is part of the brief.

He says:

“The role I have got right now has been the biggest political challenge I’ve had. We cover an area five times the size of Greater London.

“Everybody has got an opinion on transport and everybody wants to express it. It is difficult to switch off because I feel very heavily the weight of responsibility that I’ve got.

“But it’s my home area. North Yorkshire is where I’m born and bred and an area that I want to do everything I can to improve.”

The role includes oversight of major schemes including the £11.2 million Harrogate Station Gateway, the £70 million realignment of the A59 at Kex Gill, introducing a Harrogate park and ride and the headache-inducing Otley Road cycle route.

Keane Duncan

He became the youngest ever North Yorkshire county councillor at the age of 22.

Cllr Duncan, who was born in Malton in Ryedale, has also got six other districts besides Harrogate to worry about, not to mention countywide problems such as potholes and trying to prevent a mass cull of bus services at the end of March.

Councillors aren’t paid but they do receive allowances. Cllr Duncan currently receives a basic allowance of £10,316 per year plus £15,939 for his executive portfolio. These sums are set to rise to £15,500 and £19,554 respectively when North Yorkshire County Council is replaced by North Yorkshire Council on April 1.

When he isn’t on council duty he works as deputy news editor of the Daily Star, writing recently about everything from a monster python attacking a child to the death of former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev — who left power before Cllr Duncan was born.

He says:

“I work full-time in my journalism role and I would say I work full-time plus in my executive role so there is a lot of pressure. It does take a lot of time but I’m committed to my council duties.”

‘I believe in Conservative principles’

Cllr Duncan, a keen gym-goer, was the most eye-catching appointment to leader Carl Les’ 10-person executive, which is effectively his Cabinet, not least because he was 45 years younger than his predecessor Don Mackenzie.

During our interview, Cllr Duncan gave updates on the Otley Road cycle route and the gateway but we also wanted to know what has driven him since his teens to pursue politics so vigorously and what kind of Conservative he is. Even his degree is in politics. He says:

“Fundamentally I believe in Conservative principles — that is people taking responsibility, low taxes, everything you would expect from a Conservative.

“I do think I look at things slightly differently to some of my colleagues. That is maybe a result of being from a younger generation but I have always been prepared to make my own mind up on things. That isn’t always easy but I have done this for eight years through university and all my working life so far.

“I enjoy being a councillor and serving the public and for people who aren’t involved in local politics that’s difficult to explain and articulate. But it’s something I can’t imagine not having in my life.”

Cllr Keane Duncan, executive councillor for access at North Yorkshire County Council.

Pictured in Harrogate

Here’s what he had to say on the key local transport issues.

Kex Gill start ‘imminent’

Realigning the landslip-hit A59 at Kex Gill is “the most ambitious highways capital project that the county council has ever embarked on”, says Cllr Duncan.

Work has been delayed many times but the scheme is due to start any day. He said it was a deceptively complex project:

“On a map it looks very simple but we know there are all the engineering challenges this scheme presents. But we are committed to delivering this scheme.”

‘More comprehensive’ active travel schemes

The council’s commitment to active travel has been questioned by Harrogate District Cycle Action after Cllr Duncan indicated the second phase of the Otley Road cycle route won’t proceed.

Other cycling schemes on Beech Grove and Victoria Avenue in Harrogate have failed to progress, along with another scheme for Harrogate Road in Knaresborough.

It seems they may now be shelved too as wider, more ambitious plans are drawn up after the council submits a bid to the fourth round of funding by Active Travel England, which funded the schemes.

He said:

“We are progressing on those schemes but there’s the prospect of further funding in active travel round four and there might be a case for using funding we have already secured and funding we might secure in that round to deliver much more comprehensive active travel schemes in the future. So we are really just waiting to see the outcomes of that.

“We are looking to improve those corridors but there might be more comprehensive things we can do in those locations but they would require further funding so we are working closely with Active Travel England, discussing our plans and proposals, and they are saying ‘don’t deliver a scheme just because you have funding for that element of a scheme, take a step back and look at the bigger picture and if you need further funding to deliver a more comprehensive scheme then we want to work with you to provide that’.”

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Keane Duncan

Speaking at County Hall in Northallerton

Park and ride location uncertain

The council previously said it had identified two possible sites for a park and ride in Pannal on land near Pannal Golf Club and the Buttersyke Bar roundabout south of the village.

These were identified as they connect to the 36 bus service which runs between Harrogate, Ripon and Leeds on the A61.

But it seems this too is under review. Asked about the Pannal options, Cllr Duncan said:

“As far as I’m concerned that is one of many sites that have been explored so I wouldn’t want to rule anything in or out at this stage but certainly work is ongoing at this stage in the hope that we can get a positive outcome from it.

“I’m open minded about that and want to wait and see the outcomes of the analysis we are doing. I have not yet had confirmation as to when this is expected to conclude.”

Buses face ‘cliff edge’

Although funding for the 24 service between Pateley Bridge and Harrogate was secured for another year this week, Cllr Duncan says 79 services in North Yorkshire are at risk of reduced frequency of service or ceasing altogether.

D-Day is fast approaching. He says:

“Passenger numbers are 80% of where they were before the covid pandemic on average.

“Operating costs and staffing costs have increased significantly and that has created this perfect storm. The scale of that challenge will far exceed the £1.6m of subsidy we set aside every year which has been the case since 2016.

“The cliff edge moment is going to be March when the central government funding comes to an end. But when the people of North Yorkshire are for whatever reason not using buses, it wouldn’t be right to then ask the public to pay more to subsidise services they are not using. That is not sustainable.

“The only real way forward is passengers. Passengers are the key to this problem and we need people to use buses.”