Tom Richmond: Resort where time stands still... and so does the traffic stuck on the A64

Beach at Scarboroughs South Bay.
Beach at Scarboroughs South Bay.
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IT was one of those priceless moments, so few and far between, where one just wishes for time to stand still.

Sat on the harbour wall at Scarborough by the iconic lighthouse, looking directly into the sun as it set above the South Bay, with the waves gently rippling against a glistening shore as a lone fisherman cast his line, I could think of no finer place in the world.

Admittedly it could have been a fraction warmer – it was late January after all – but the wind was benign on Sunday afternoon and I’m sure it has been colder when Yorkshire’s cricketers have taken to the field at North Marine Drive in high summer. Indeed, all that was missing was the gentle thwack of leather on willow.

It was the perfect time for quiet reflection, and not just on why a much-loved horse had run below par in the 1.30pm at Market Rasen.

And then, I admonished myself – why, when the setting is so spectacular, and the ale so reasonably priced, had I not visited this Yorkshire jewel for goodness knows how many years?

The answer soon came to me: the journey from Leeds, along the A64 past York and Malton, and finally on to Scarborough.

It may only have been a Sunday, at the end of a winter month when families are traditionally short of money, but I was surprised by just how many people were on the road to the coast (and they certainly were not all going to see Billy Connolly).

In parts, it was tortuous – lorries, as opposed to a cavalcade of caravans in the summer, slowing traffic on the single carriageway sections of this main road to a near-crawl.

And I’m not the only person to be surprised by the volume of traffic – many Scarborough visitors on Sunday said they would not dream of visiting the town in the summer because of the traffic.

Intriguingly, Transport Minister Mike Penning told Parliament the other day how he was delayed on the A64 on New Year’s Day, as he promised to meet MPs to discuss possible improvements.

But the reality is that the response needs to be far quicker, and far more robust, than the usual Ministerial platitudes which traditionally follow such meetings.

Why? Britain’s resorts, including Scarborough where 11,000 people are employed in tourism, are fighting for their economic survival, not least because the holiday industry has become more competitive.

Yet their location, on the coastline, means transport access will, invariably, be limited – and the rail fare quotes certainly made the train from Leeds to Scarborough a non-starter (and on a slow and rickety line that is unlikely to benefit from plans to electrify the trans-Pennine route).

A commitment to belatedly upgrade a road like the A64 would send out a powerful message from the Government that seaside resorts do matter – and that they will form a key part of the coalition’s attempts to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure.

Even the current suggestion favoured by local councils, namely the introduction of overtaking lanes, is unlikely to be make a significant difference – it simply moves the problem a few miles at best.

Of course, there is the counter-argument – namely that Britain’s debt level now stands in excess of one trillion pounds and the country has spent beyond its means for far too long.

It’s a strong point, but my response would be thus: road improvements can take five years, if not longer, to plan, and one would hope that the nation’s finances were on a stronger footing by 2017 or so.

Of course, it will be too late for those extra visitors that Welcome to Yorkshire hopes to entice to the coast, and to the Yorkshire Wolds, this summer on the back of artist David Hockney’s latest exhibition of his iconic work at the Royal Academy.

Yet I believe that there needs to be co-ordinated action to ensure that Scarborough remains one of Britain’s “must visit” tourist destinations each and every summer.

That means tourism chiefs working with MPs and local councils along the route, and building on research already undertaken, to present a compelling plan to Transport Secretary Justine Greening.

Potentially, there are two options – either Department for Transport funds (and the total cost is likely to be at least half of the near £1bn being spent on rail improvements at Reading Station, and would benefit far more people) or some kind of road pricing scheme where visitors pay a surcharge that helps fund improvements.

Of course, it will not be easy to enforce – how do you differentiate between local motorists and visitors? It’s not like Vancouver Airport, which raised money for a new terminal by charging all those who passed through the departure lounge.

Others would contend that the coastal economy is already too fragile and that visitors, who are already taxpayers, will take their custom elsewhere, thank you very much.

Either way, doing nothing on this 35-mile stretch of road is not an option. The issue has been parked in a political cul-de-sac for far too long and it would be regrettable if Scarborough’s future, and a local economy worth £300m a year, was compromised by a lack of foresight on the part of this region’s power-brokers. They need to be far more pro-active with their efforts.

For, while Scarborough is without rival, I can think of no place I would less rather start a break, or a day out, than the car park that is the A64 – supposedly one of Yorkshire’s main arterial roads – at the height of the holiday season.