I’M as proud of my town as anyone. And although I have to admit to only a passing interest in cycling, I was delighted when Barnsley was chosen as one of the eight hosts for this year’s Tour de Yorkshire. The race will be here tomorrow and the local council has – excuse the pun – been gearing up to it for months.
Our role as a host town will guarantee television coverage of the beautiful countryside which surrounds us, and showcase our outstanding architecture such as the magnificent Portland stone Town Hall.
Not bad for a place so often overlooked, it doesn’t even merit a mention on the television weather report; our buildings are just as beautiful, our hills just as breath-taking and our views just as awesome as, say, Halifax.
It’s a certainly a landmark event and we can’t take that away from Welcome to Yorkshire, the race organisers, the participants and the council workmen who have spent a not inconsiderable amount of time recently mending potholes on the route towards the “Cote de Blacker Hill”, which will challenge riders to a steep incline and sharp bends as they ascend above the Dove Valley towards Hoyland.
Regular users of this road, such as myself, have wasted no time in noting that most of the frantic pothole-mending has been focussed only on the stretch of shattered Tarmac which the competitors will grace with their athletic presence. The rest of the road through the woods is more pitted and dangerous than ever. It also remains an absolute magnet for fly-tipping and rubbish-dumping of all disgusting descriptions.
I totally understand that the powers-that-be want to put on the borough’s best face for this major sporting event. It’s a bit like running round the house plumping up the cushions before your poshest relatives arrive for tea. However, it doesn’t exactly give residents a warm and fuzzy feeling of contentment.
Inevitably, there have been questions asked. People are not happy about money which they have paid in council tax being spent on an event which they say they have no direct connection with. And they are all also questioning what long-term benefits it might bring to the place they call home. This is a tricky one.
There are countless cycling fans in Barnsley, but there is also a sense of disconnection. And I’m not being disloyal either to my town or to the many dedicated individuals who have worked so hard to bring the Tour here, if I point it out. When the wheels have sped through and the bunting begins to come down, we’ll still be left with the town and all its problems.
And this is what local and regional leaders must recognise. It is not enough to give Barnsley a boost by bring the TDY to town. It should act as a catalyst to set in place a chain of actions which will really tackle some of the issues which affect us.
The multi-million pound regeneration of the town centre, for instance, will bring a new market, bigger and better retail stores and restaurants and improved leisure and learning facilities such as a multiplex cinema and new library.
Yet, for many, this very town centre is becoming a no-go area. I’m saddened to say that there appears to be an increasing incidence of anti-social problems. For instance, individuals are falling victim to substance or alcohol abuse, in broad daylight and in front of shoppers and families. I’ll be frank. It creates a dangerous atmosphere and people are voting with their feet towards Meadowhall and the new retail park at Cortonwood.
This is not a situation peculiar to Barnsley. It’s happening in towns and cities around the UK and everywhere, local authorities and emergency services are clearly struggling to cope. I’m not here to judge, but I can say that it’s invidious to paper over the cracks with some yellow and blue bunting and pretend it’s not happening.
I hope that those with the power to make a difference will use the TDY as a springboard to really clean up our town. This will have to go much further than simply washing the pavements and cleaning the Town Hall windows for the proceedings.
When the writer and social commentator George Orwell visited Barnsley in 1936 as part of his research for his book, The Road to Wigan Pier, which chronicled the conditions of the working class, the Town Hall – and the local council – didn’t impress him much.
He queried why the money invested in this splendid new monument to civic pride was not being redirected into improving the squalid and overcrowded housing which local people were forced to pay rent for.
Much has changed round here since Orwell made his visit. Some things, however, haven’t. I would hate the Tour de Yorkshire’s fleeting presence through my town to leave a bitter taste. Rather, I would like it help put Barnsley on the map permanently, and for all the right reasons.