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Durham Cathedral: Transport "Innovation" Threatens historic city

Stonehenge and Durham Cathedral form two of Britain 's best known and most visited World Heritage Sites. Stonehenge has been much in the British news recently, and a topic of debate in parliament. The controversy there concerns environmental damage associated with traffic, and how much measures against it would cost. Durham now seems likely to achieve the same unlucky prominence in the national media.















However, there is a major difference. At Stonehenge the issue is how to mitigate the effects of proximity to heavy traffic. One current option includes simply closing a road (See Heritage Action) In Durham the issue is not road closure but road building. For the past two years elements of the Highways Section of Durham County Council have been crusading for a so-called "Northern Relief Road" across the protected green belt near the centre of the city. To cap it all, one of the most destructive road schemes in recent times could now be funded by the British Government's new "Transport Innovation Fund" a scheme sold as helping reduce traffic and protecting the environment.

The road would run close to the centre of Durham City, passing at height about half a mile north of the Cathedral and in the process vandalising there one of the greatest panoramas of ecclesiastical architecture in the world.

Durham Castle and Cathedral lie on a rocky peninsular, now wooded, within a bend of the River Wear in North East England. Both are essentially Norman Buildings . In 1993 the Cathedral celebrated nine hundred years since its foundation as the site of the holy shrine of Cuthbert, the Lindisfarne saint whose body had been moved to Durham in 995. Nikolaus Pevsner wrote of Durham :

Durham is one of the great experiences of Europe to the eyes of those who appreciate architecture.... The group of Cathedral, Castle, and Monastery on the rock can only be compared to Avignon and Prague

In 1986 the area was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

With both Stonehenge and Durham the issue is not primarily a threat to the actual physical fabric of stones and buildings. The threat is to the place in its broader, real sense. At Stonehenge no one wants to contemplate a prehistoric religious monument in an atmosphere pervaded by the noise and violence of a major road. Closing the A344 would enable boundary fencing around the stones to be moved, reuniting the ancient monument with its landscape. Durham 's spectacular buildings overlook a green river valley immediately to both north and south, where they are in some ways at their most impressive towering over the tops of trees and fields. This is the sight that may soon be interrupted from the north by an imitation of London 's Marylebone flyover, severing the World Heritage Site from its landscape. It would pass through the middle of the area photographed at the top of this page.

The "Northern Relief Road" is currently one of two options being considered in a study of measures to reduce alleged traffic congestion in Durham . This study is being funded by Central Government's new Transport Innovation Fund. A condition for any more big money from this rapidly growing fund would be that Durham act as one guinea pig for some sort of direct road pricing scheme. So the Durham road would be built as a "new alternative route," with a toll set up to divert drivers from what the County Council misleadingly calls the "historic city centre" --- by which it actually means the A690, an ugly dual carriageway built in the late 1960s to bypass the bottom of the peninsular.

Given that traffic congestion is barely a problem in the North East of England, some people were puzzled when Durham County Council was awarded Government money to study such a possibility at all. The Council's submission of autumn 2005 contained a great deal of hype about the fact that in 2004 Durham saw the first road user charging scheme in the country. Since 2004 a small charge has kept traffic away from the one small road that runs along the historic peninsular. This is now seen as a great success. Nevertheless the scheme is tiny, more comparable to a payment point for parking than to the huge congestion charging scheme that shortly followed in central London .

The other option now being considered by the Council is some sort of broader road charging without any new road. This may still threaten the character of Durham in less visible but equally damaging ways. There is now cross-party consensus in the UK that some kind of national, sensitive road charging scheme, as an alternative to current road taxes, can offer the only long-term sustainable way to manage projected traffic growth, combined with better public transport. That may be so, but a plan that cuts off Durham as an island of charging on its own is an entirely different matter. People fear that it risks the livelihood of traders in the town, especially those gathered around the city's lively marketplace. To avoid paying the charge, motorists would drive to one of the area's outlying warehouse style retail parks, each of course surrounded by its huge car-park. This would accelerate a slow but unmistakable trend towards the old centre becoming a kind of heritage theme park.


Needless to say, local opposition is already making itself heard. The Secretary of the City of Durham Trust , one of the country's oldest civic trusts, writes:

"All towns are of local importance, some of regional, fewer of national, but very few can claim to be of international significance. Durham is in the last category. It therefore deserves most careful stewardship of both setting and centre. To insert an unnecessary road around the green collar of the centre is not only wasteful of resources, but, more importantly, is an act of vandalism, even sacrilege." ( Douglas Pocock, City of Durham Trust)

In the summer of 2005 a local group was formed specifically to fight the road. It has been active, with growing support, ever since. An online petition has attracted many signatures. Its website is:

The campaigners point out that the road proposal also threatens some of the most treasured places and landscapes in Durham , including Crook Hall, a medieval and renaissance manor house that receives some 10,000 visitors a year. The relief road would pass on concrete stilts right next to the Hall's exquisite gardens. Kepier Hospital Gatehouse, a designated ancient monument, would also be severely affected.

Numerous comments have been left on this campaign's website. Many testify to the uniqueness of the setting in which the World Heritage Site lies.















One anonymous petitioner writes: "This valley is one of the hidden gems of Durham ... As you walk either lane towards the Cathedral you get a real feel for Durham of times past when nature dominated the city. A relief road through any part of this valley, regardless of its proximity to Crook Hall or the ancient Kepier Hospital would be a disaster that would destroy the city landscape forever." Another writes: "it would be like slicing through a Monet painting."

Northwards through this valley runs " Frankland Lane ," which is also the " Weardale Way " at this point. Some of this lane forms the route that late medieval monks would take between their two seasonal establishments of Durham Cathedral and Finchale Priory three miles to the north (now an English Heritage property). Arguably the whole route through the valley from Cathedral to the Priory deserves special protection as one of the few remaining places in Europe where the site of the way of life in a great medieval cathedral is still relatively unscathed.

The Politics of Living Near A World Heritage Site

Durham's central narrow peninsular itself has an oddly confusing geography, so that visitors often lose their sense of direction around it: walk 150 metres, turn a corner and the river that was behind you is suddenly in front of you again, the current seeming to move in the opposite direction. A local expert nicknames Durham as a "city of illusions." The term seems often to apply to any local land development. Durham 's privileged status as a World Heritage Site can loom over planning disputes in the city just as the Cathedral itself towers over the area, lending them a peculiarly intense character. As with the County Council's current scheme for "Transport Innovation in an Historic City ," local people know at once that lip service to "protecting the city's uniqueness" is often an infallible warning that something very nasty is afoot.

The development plan of the small local City Council is extremely sensitive to the responsibilities of protecting the historic peninsular and its wider setting in a circle of small hills. A new plan is currently being worked out by local, national and international bodies to ensure that the site is managed in a way that befits its international importance. At the same time, local politicians themselves often find themselves cast as principal villains in the landscape they oversee. In 2002 panic about a report on lack of sports facilities led the City Council incompetently to approve the erection of a huge garish indoor football stadium that obviously breaches its local plan, now visible for miles on its hillside from approaches by road and rail north of the old city. Since the two local councils, the County Council and smaller City Council are now in the hands of opposed political parties, every twist and turn of a planning dispute in the shadow of the World Heritage Site tends to become politicised, with both parties also seeking to draw on the large reservoir of public resentment caused by a sustained record of sanctioned eyesores.

In response to these pressures the City of Durham Trust has suggested extensions and a buffer zone for the World Heritage Site, whose boundaries were drawn up in 2-3 days by a visitor from the Department of the Environment, apparently a stranger to the area. The body charged with overseeing the preservation of World Heritage Sites in the UK is the "International Council on Monuments and Sites". Its British branch is no stranger to planning disputes in Durham , where every residual green space currently holds the lure of a lucrative investment. In the winter of 2005-6 it contested a controversial plan for a tall apartment block on the River Wear in view of the World Heritage Site. The proposal was later called in by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, pending a full public inquiry in late 2006. It did not escape those fighting the road proposal that this development would be tiny in comparison.

Durham and other Road Building Protests

The Durham situation, bringing together a World Heritage Site, the supposedly progressive Transport Innovation Fund and an unusually destructive road scheme is uniquely explosive. However, similar scenarios are in play and multiplying across the UK . For example, the ancient town of Shrewsbury, situated on the English Welsh borders in a loop of the River Severn, is threatened by its own "North West Relief Road," in a situation almost identical to that in Durham.

As more people are threatened by it the rage against Britain 's latest wave of roadbuilding can only grow, supported by "Roadblock", a recently emerged and energetic anti-roadbuilding charity that functions to advise and coordinate over eighty local groups across the country.

The issues are often extremely complex and can proliferate some rather easy scapegoats, especially local councils themselves -- for one certain residual function of local government in the UK is to act as a public Aunt Sally. Likewise in Durham some opponents of the proposed road and a local paper posit the problem there as one of "through traffic," advocating that the road be built further away in order to divert it. In fact, however, in Durham as in other cities the vast majority of the traffic is local, probably some 85% in this case, engaged in a journey of only two miles or so. As the name of a problem, "through traffic" can too easily mean "other people." Nevertheless, when the outcry against the scheme reached one climax in the late summer of 2005, the County Council duly obliged by resurrecting a previously shelved and also very destructive road scheme as a new "outer" route. This is still being considered -- in theory at least.

Gradually, however, attitudes to car use in Britain are changing. Some residents report that a shift could be felt in Durham during only a few months. Overall in the UK , concern about irresponsible car use is now perhaps at the stage reached by arguments about passive smoking some twenty years ago. People are looking to government for genuine and responsible leadership. With news arriving each week of the tragedy now encroaching on the planet, only a diminishing number of people and some very powerful interest groups consider that payment of an annual sum in car tax necessarily confers an unassailable right to career unimpeded, one person per car, through landscapes especially bulldozed for the purpose.

So what will happen in Durham ? Local campaigners are finding increasing support for the argument that the County Council needs to do more to address genuine demand management ideas, short of the currently proposed crudities of tolls and road building. For instance, the two biggest local employers, the Council itself and the University of Durham , still make no charge on employees for use of their huge car-parking facilities and seem to have little real interest in things such as car clubs. This may be about to change. It is to be hoped that other suitable measures will ensue and that the quiet green heart of the city can hold out --- long enough at least for a combination of changing attitudes, better public transport and intelligent, national road management systems to offer it more permanent safety. After all, many people dispute the existence of serious traffic congestion in the Durham or the North East in the first place.



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