Strayside Sunday: Planters? We have bigger problems up the road


Last updated Feb 20, 2021
Strayside Sunday

Strayside Sunday is our weekly political opinion column. It is written by Paul Baverstock, former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party. 

People really care about transport and traffic.

In my column last week I made the point that car design has been made less interesting; less angular, more rounded, better to adhere to pedestrian safety concerns.  In my mailbag this week I was taken to task for suggesting that cars only occasionally collide with pedestrians.  For the avoidance of doubt I want to make plain that any pedestrian death is of course one too many.

In fact, it has been pointed out to me that in the United Kingdom during 2019 there were 1743 pedestrian casualties with 1748 road deaths (including vehicle occupants).  I agree, this cannot be defined as “occasional.”  However, for perspective, given that the Department for Transport reports that we Brits took to the roads in our vehicles for a total of 272 billion miles in 2019, the number of pedestrian deaths is mercifully low.

Clearly pedestrians were not ‘front of mind’ to car drivers confronted with North Yorkshire County Council’s implementation of new traffic control measures at Harrogate’s Beech Grove this week.  Finding their route blocked with large planters, it seems that rather than turn around and navigate the roads, several drivers simply took off across the stray to avoid the obstacles.  The impromptu rally left several deep tire tracks in our cherished green space and, allegedly, saw other drivers find alternate routes through the private carparks of the apartment buildings on the road.  For some reason Dick Dastardly, Muttley and Penelope Pitstop spring to mind: Whacky Races indeed.

The Stray Defence Association (SDA) has mobilised, with their Chair, the redoubtable Judy D’Arcy Thompson to the fore.  It strikes me that what with Harrogate BID (BID), Independent Harrogate (IH), Harrogate and District Cycle Action (HDCA), Pinewoods Conservation Group (PCG) and the SDA, the political scene in Harrogate is beginning to resemble Ulster in the troubles.  Now, before you get exercised, of course I don’t actually think that, nor is it my intent to diminish the horrible importance of the traumatic lived experiences of those across the Irish Sea. Indeed, nor do I demean the activities of Harrogate’s various interest groups.  Quite the reverse.  In fact this column is a weekly and affectionate exercise in celebrating Harrogate’s vibrant local life and politics.

By the way, 2019 was also the year in which North Yorkshire County Council conducted a public survey into traffic congestion. 77% of us reported that we would use cycling and walking infrastructure, were it to be built.  This is but one piece of evidence being used by our fearless local leaders this week as they reached for the top shelf, grabbed an existing plan or two and blew off the dust.  Yes, plans to pedestrianise James Street and Station Parade are back on the agenda and lovely artists renderings of tree-lined, single-lane boulevards, segregated cycling lanes and promenades are circulating.  The almost £8 million Station Gateway Project is alive and well.

This will likely, and with some justification, enrage many in Harrogate’s business community, particularly those with commercial interests on once-proud James Street.  What I want to see and hear from our county and borough councillors is a cogent plan for economic renewal, for enterprise creation, for the bringing together of place, work and community.  In the absence of leadership, vision and common purpose, narrow interest groups with opposing views will continue to flourish.  Discourse will be lost to the cacophonous and shouty voices of entrenched opinion.

The world is undergoing profound changes, accelerated by Covid-19.  How we work will never be the same again, with company after company embracing a permanent work from home culture.  In-store retail shopping, already in decline before the pandemic, faces the end of days.  One of the most successful companies of our time is called Shopify; a Canadian tech giant that allows anyone to create a brilliant virtual retail presence for their venture (including payment and product distribution) for a monthly subscription of £25.  In the face of such profound change it just isn’t good enough to dust off old plans and comforting drawings.  We need discontinuity, creative thinking and innovation.  Nor is it good enough to find comfort in the way things were, in how we have always done things, in how we have built our businesses over the years.

Harrogate remains a great place to live, this notwithstanding that we hear this week that our council tax is going up significantly (£50 at Band D).  As we wait with bated breath for the Prime Minister’s Monday press conference, for what we hope will be a tentative lockdown easing roadmap, the £300 billion plus costs of Covid-19 and its economic impact begin to hove chillingly into view.  Council tax increases are just the beginning.

Conservatives both national and local have always felt that their point of difference is effective economic stewardship.  With the Bank of England predicting that unemployment could reach 10% by the middle of 2022, the cost of welfare benefits is set to sky-rocket.  Rishi Sunak is in an unenviable position; he’s paid Paul and now needs to rob Peter.  It seems inevitable that income tax rates will have to rise.  A one-off wealth tax has been suggested.  Increased inheritance tax is on the table, as are both a capital gains tax increase and a closure of tax efficient enterprise investment schemes.  If implemented with a dead hand, if we are ever to pay off our Covid-19 bill, these measures could choke off any prospect of the economic recovery the country desperately needs.

Local traffic and transport issues are important but they are a second order problem.  We are in danger of squabbling over the deckchairs while the Titanic sinks.

That’s my Strayside Sunday.

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