Portrait Bench Unveiling

I am of course honoured and thrilled to be one of the characters on this portrait bench. But this was a huge team effort by the whole steering group over the last 5 or 6 years – cyclists, walkers, horseriders and Open Country which helps disabled people gain access to the countryside. Thank you to fellow cycling campaigner David Rowson, and Eric Wright, of Harrogate Lions, who first made me aware of the terrific potential of this route, and to Andrew Willoughby of Harrogate Ramblers, Martin Weeks and of course Keith, my companion on this bench, whose steadfast support and eye for detail make them indispensable members of the steering group. I particularly want to thank certain councillors whose support was crucial, especially Michael Harrison, Don Mackenzie and Heather Garnett, and Sir Thomas Ingilby of Ripley Castle who has always supported the principle of the Greenway. A few council officers, not least Dan McAndrew, countryside ranger officer for Harrogate, and Martin Parker, project leader for North Yorkshire, played a key part. As a campaigner I have to say the lack of enthusiasm of some officers at times very nearly defeated us. When I first got involved we had to overcome outright hostility from officers who couldn’t get us out of County Hall fast enough and made us wonder, half seriously, if they were in league with the opposition. We then faced a change from a local transport plan which gave recreational routes like this high priority to one where they had very low priority and little chance of funding. All too often correspondence goes unanswered and officers need to be chased again and again. North Yorkshire continues to refuse to appoint a cycling officer, as it did before recent budget cuts were a factor. The County still seems to me no more than a reluctant partner with Sustrans.  It needs to become a truly enthusiastic partner if its stated ambition ‘to be recognised as a great region for safe cycling, inspiring more people to cycle more often’ is to be more than just fine words on paper.

A huge thank you to those, some here today, who contributed to my fundraising effort several years ago which has at last helped produce this brilliant result. But above all I want to thank Sustrans, a fantastic organisation which has fought for this route since the mid 90’s and funded it with Big Lottery money. Sustrans has built over 14,000 miles of the National Cycle Network of which this is part. If you want to support a superb charity working for sustainable transport, with your money and/or your time, I can’t recommend Sustrans strongly enough.

Ideally Sustrans shouldn’t be needed, though it most certainly is. In Holland, Denmark or in Belgium where Gia and I have just been cycling, Governments provide a wonderful network of safe cycle paths. It’s fabulous. In the towns and cities thousands of people bike to school, university, work, shops and cafes. There is no good reason why the UK shouldn’t have a cycle infrastructure which enables us to do the same. In terms of our transport policy we are in the Dark Ages. We need a new approach which serves the community as whole – pedestrians, cyclists, the many who don’t drive as much as those who do. And to protect our environment there must be incentives to avoid using vehicles except when necessary. Government, most local authorities and indeed many people in this country sadly still don’t get it. I’ve no doubt they will, but how much longer do we have to wait?

The Nidderdale Greenway has taken more than 15 years to achieve. It’s been hugely well worth the effort but it shouldn’t have been so difficult or taken so long. I hope that the handful of landowners and residents who opposed it now see what enormous pleasure it’s bringing to so many people of all ages, and appreciate what a wonderful asset it is. Next year the Tour de France is coming to Harrogate. Huge credit to Welcome to Yorkshire for this success, and for giving us a unique opportunity to create a legacy which, if we grasp it, will make a massive difference to communities in Yorkshire and beyond.

This wonderful Greenway is just the start. I very much hope that our community can work together from now on, with your continuing support, to build a first class network of safe cycle and shared use paths in Harrogate and the surrounding countryside as quickly as possible.