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Millions spent but no relief for A65 villages

Friday 20 January 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard reveals the millions wasted on the Dales roads which were never built - despite years of suffering by local residents

HERE is a staggering statistic known only to a few insiders in the murkier corners of Whitehall, a handful of politicians, and some very disgruntled civil engineers: if, and when, a road ever gets built in Britain, half its cost - which can be hundreds of millions of pounds - has already been spent by the time the first sod is cut.

All those millions have gone on fees and salaries for lawyers, civil servants, planning inspectors and myriad "expert" consultants who have drawn up the evidence and attended the long drawn-out, impossibly complex and boring planning enquiries that make the UK the civil engineering laughing stock of Europe.

Bolton Abbey in Southern Wharfedale
Traffic on the A65 at Gargrave

This huge waste of public money irritates me both professionally and personally because, as a cub reporter, I had to attend these mind-numbing events. But in those days, if planning permission were finally granted, the project usually got built.

Not now. As the long-suffering residents of the A65 corridor between Skipton and Settle fear to their cost, their long-awaited bypasses might now never be constructed, although they went through all that planning hullabaloo some 30 years ago.

Now, an act that many see as yet another slap in the face for country folk, the Highways Agency is trying to rescind those planning approvals (see News). And - pardon my cynical chuckle - it is to hold yet another planning enquiry so that it can destroy the work of dozens of other planning enquiries and decades of work that initially began, believe it or not, before World War II.

Now I must declare a personal interest here. I have been going up and down the A65 like a yoyo for 30 years. This is how I earn my living, as do many much more important people than me, like doctors, vets, the emergency services, farmers going to and from market, the milk tanker drivers who keep a pint in our fridges (not to mention to beer wagons that keep ale in our pumps).

Even in mid-winter like now, the A65 can be a pretty unpleasant road, with its mix of heavy through traffic between Scotland industrial Yorkshire, quarry wagons, tractors, school buses and everyone else who uses the road as one of the major arteries of the Dales.

But in mid-summer, it can become an absolute nightmare when you add to this potent and highly dangerous cocktail convoys of caravans, roaring squadrons of powerful motorbikes, and hundreds of elderly visitors driving at a sedate 40 mph as they enjoy a trip to the country.

The worst example of dangerous driving I have ever seen in almost 50 years behind the wheel took place in Long Preston as we stood stationary in a line of summer traffic. A young woman, a baby in one arm, a toddler on her other hand, was trying to thread her way through the stationary cars to cross the road.

When she was three quarters of the way across, two motorcyclists came screaming along from behind as though they were in the Isle of Man TT. Unable to stop, they passed the young women one on either side at, I would estimate, 60 mph and perhaps more.

The woman screamed with fear, a refrain taken up by her children. She seemed paralysed, rooted to the spot. I got out of the car and helped her to the roadside, where she nodded her thanks but could not get out any words.

This, I admit, was an outrageous exception to normal behaviour, but for 30 years and more the good folk of Gargrave, Hellifield and Long Preston have been suffering the noise, the fumes and, yes, the dangers of living alongside a race track.

For those 30 years, they always lived with the hope that one day they would have a bypass. They very nearly got them in 1996, when work was due to start. But then this government was elected and John Prescott scrapped them, virtually his very first act in power.

Now, if the planning permissions are rescinded, the chances of their ever being built are virtually zero, for the whole planning process would have to start all over again. And that would mean more millions for the lawyers, the civil servants, and the consultants who have already waxed rich on roads to nowhere.

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