Better digital connections can help level up rural North Yorkshire, says county councillor Don Mackenzie
As well as something approaching 4,000 miles of footpaths, North Yorkshire County Council has 2,000 bridges to maintain, many of which are ancient structures and require extra protection by virtue of their Grade II listed status.
On the day he speaks to The Yorkshire Post from his home in Harrogate, county councillor Don Mackenzie is preparing a press release about one of these structures after it was struck by a large vehicle.
“It takes up a lot of our time getting the bridge repaired and because they’re listed structures the repair can be both expensive and long-winded,” says Coun Mackenzie, who for the last five years has been the Tory-run authority’s executive member for access, which includes highways, transport, broadband and mobile telephony.
A few days later, the 70-year-old had more inconvenience to convey to local residents as repair work on a bridge destroyed in the 2019 North Yorkshire floods meant a lengthy diversion for motorists.
Temporary traffic lights will be in operation on the B6270 Richmond to Grinton road from 7am today to November 20 as work is completed in Cogden North bridge in the Yorkshire Dales, where county highways teamed acted quickly to build a temporary structure following the unprecedented flooding.
A county councillor since 2009, Coun Mackenzie is a familiar name to many in Harrogate as well as wider North Yorkshire thanks to his 12-year stint as a borough councillor between 2006 and 2018. This included one year as leader and a four-year spell as the lead councillor for planning and transport which included the start of the borough’s controversial Local Plan process.
Brought up in Ipswich, he moved to Harrogate in 1972 to work for industrial coatings specialists MMP, working his way up to become managing director. The firm was sold in 1998 and he stayed on as a business manager for another decade.
After an initial four year spell as a Harrogate borough councillor between 1987 and 1991, he left to concentrate on his business and young family before returning in 2006.
Reflecting on his three decades in local civic life, he concedes that some of the issues he deals with have remained unchanged over the years.
“I know that local elected members always feel that there are certain things that get the general public and their electors particularly engaged,” he says.
“One is housebuilding, generally speaking most people support house building, they like plenty of affordable housing, but not near them. That’s generally the case. And of course, they often complain about the state of their roads, potholes and the like.
“It’s very much a frontline role that I have in North Yorkshire. And the sorts of things that get local residents engaged were the same 30 or 40 years ago.”
Public transport is a major issue in rural areas, as the county council subsidises bus services but cannot accede to every request.
“We spend a million and a half pounds on subsidising buses now, every year,” says Coun Mackenzie.
“We used to spend, 10 years ago, £8 million, but frankly when we spent £8 million a lot of that was really to keep buses on the road that were running empty so it was a poor use of taxpayers’ money.
“So I think we’ve got it right now, although there’s probably a bit more to do as far as getting better value for taxpayers money in running more demand responsive services, a bit like Uber, except you don’t have quite the five minute turnaround, we could offer a bus within the following 60 minutes.”
While travelling between the north and south of England’s largest county is relatively easy thanks to the A1M and the East Coast Main Line, moving east to west is much harder.
This is why the council is backing efforts by MPs to upgrade the A64 between York and Scarborough. And it is hopeful for £50m in funding to build a new section of road to bypass the unstable section of the A59 at Kex Gill between Skipton and Harrogate. “That regularly suffers a land slip and that leads to long closure, diverting traffic through Otley and Ilkley which is not good neighbourliness to West Yorkshire,” says Coun Mackenzie.
Asked about his biggest challenge, he cites his desire to get high quality broadband in all properties as part of the Superfast North Yorkshire scheme, which has already given 180,000 businesses and homes better connections.
“Because we have such a vast county over 3,000 square miles and with big distances between villages and main towns , it is important to give our residents good digital services in order to level everybody up”, he says, slipping easily into the favoured vernacular of the current Prime Minister.
“I think it is very easy to allow rural areas to be at a disadvantage compared with bigger urban areas, especially with digital services, but North Yorkshire being a large and essentially rural county, rural services are one of our top priorities.”
When North Yorkshire flooded in the summer of 2019, local MP Rishi Sunak lobbied the Government for extra funds to support the county. But Coun Mackenzie says since the Richmond MP became Chancellor he has not lobbied him for special favours.
“I think probably we would have had greater sway over him as a non-Chancellor and local MP because he clearly has to be fair to all the residents of England and Britain.
“Whilst we’re still waiting for a response on the Kex Gill bid, in terms of highways maintenance, in terms of broadband, Superfast North Yorkshire, local full fibre networks, we’ve always been dealt a pretty good hand by government as far as grants and awards are concerned.”
Coun Mackenzie says North Yorkshire is a "fairly affluent county" with an excellent school service which even attracts pupils from West Yorkshire.
But he says: "Nevertheless, there are pockets in Scarborough for example, even in Harrogate, there are pockets of deprivation, that we are anxious to tackle, and not just financial deprivation but health deprivation.
"Before I became executive member to access, I was the county council's first executive member for public health, when public health responsibilities were transferred to the council from the NHS in 2013.
"And then our Director of Public Health Dr Lincoln Sargeant, would bring me reports which showed for example that in general, people live up to eight years longer in better health in Harrogate than they do in Scarborough. We want to level up, we want to make sure that all of our citizens have longer and healthier lives."