In December, 14 Harrogate councillors voted to stop the relief road plans in their tracks, and instead to explore sustainable congestion relief measures.
Just 2 councillors voted the other way – Coun Michael Harrison and Coun Don Mackenzie, who are the closest to the project (they’re on the relief road Steering Committee).
It was a victory, of sorts – but that Area Committee vote wasn’t binding. Those councillors were merely being consulted for their opinion by the real decision makers. That’s a group of just three people, which includes Coun Mackenzie.
Alongside him is Coun Andrew Lee (Cawood and Saxton, who sits on the NYCC Executive Committee with Mackenzie and who has, revealingly, never visited Nidd Gorge) and a high ranking NYCC council official, David Bowe.
One week after the 14-2 vote, they met at County Hall in Northallerton and decided that the near-unanimous result carried little weight – instead, the relief road should stay on the table.
This isn’t technically undemocratic, of course – these are people who know how to shape a political process to best fit their aims. But when the loser in a 14-2 vote of the elected representatives of Harrogate and Knaresborough has the power simply to ignore it and steamroller his opposition, it feels that the spirit of democracy is also being crushed under those tracks.
If the Harrogate Area Committee cannot provide effective checks and balances to policies affecting their area, what is its purpose? Why do we bother voting when those we elect to represent us are blatantly ignored? How can one elected man’s will be allowed to override the will of fourteen other elected councillors?… Isn’t that a fundamental breach of our democracy?
Those overruled councillors asked for two key things – for the relief road to be ditched and for the sustainable transport measures to be fleshed out in more detail.
Mackenzie, Lee and Bowe seized the opportunity to make their steamroller look a little more PR-friendly by paying lip service to the latter.
“What a splendid idea!” They thought. “The sustainable transport measures should indeed be fleshed out.”
“While we’re at it, let’s flesh out the relief road too.”
This is how the ugly side of politics works, when men with plans attempt to force those plans through a resistant political architecture, against the will of the public. A concession on the one hand distracts from the thing gripped in the other – it’s a handshake to obscure the accompanying clenched fist, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. “We’re listening,” it suggests.
Make no mistake – the campaigning was worth it. It placed an obstacle in their path which has forced them to regroup and refocus. This was not a six month delay they anticipated, and Mackenzie’s livid reaction in the Area Committee meeting, when he lashed out against the public, made that very clear.
So the relief road has gone away, for a few months. In 5-6 months, it will return with more detail, ready to go before those Area Committee councillors once more.
By filling in those details, Mackenzie and co will be hoping to achieve a few things:
1) Silencing those cries that it will destroy Nidd Gorge, by picking a precise route (in ‘the development gap’ between Harrogate & Knaresborough) which does the least apparent damage (but will destroy Bilton Fields and ruin the Greenway).
2) Breaking the universal support for sustainable transport measures by elaborating on the more unpalatable ideas, like parking price hikes and congestion charges (highlighting the stick rather than dangling a carrot).
3) Building stronger arguments against the key objections: (a) social damage; (b) environmental damage; and (c) the bizarre fact that NYCC’s own evidence for the relief road points out it wouldn’t relieve congestion.
4) Getting a better result than 14-2 against.
But while they hope it will fare better when the Area Committee sees it again, as we have seen, a vote against the relief road won’t necessarily stop them. It’s simply a political obstacle.
They’re hell bent on putting it forward for public consultation and hope to get support there – though the deeply worrying thing is that the public, just like the Area Committee, would merely be a consultee for the real decision makers to take note of. The whole process has been structured to place every meaningful decision in their hands.
But with each piece of major opposition, the political path becomes harder. So we’ll be gearing up for a fight.
Please, if you care about stopping a relief road, let us know if you’ll fight with us.
Join us at our Annual General Meeting at St John’s Church, Bilton Lane, on Tuesday February 20th at 7.30pm.
RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org