RALLY drivers left disappointed by a decision to close a historic river crossing to traffic have been given a glimmer of hope that they may be able to continue to use the ford.
Motorists risking their own lives and the lives of rescuers were blamed by members of Durham County Council’s Highways Committee yesterday when they voted to close Stanhope Ford over the River Wear in Weardale.
The decision was made despite objections by locals and rally enthusiasts.
But Dave Wilcox, Durham County Council’s strategic highways manager, did offer a glimmer of hope to rally drivers, when he said the authority “would not rule out” the ford being used for rallying providing the organisers provided marshals to monitor the crossing safely.
And while county councillor Paul Stradling – who seconded a motion by council colleague Neil Foster to close the ford – said he realised the decision would be unpopular in Weardale, he added: “If the choice is between popularity or safety then I would choose safety every time.” The ford has been closed to traffic since April 1, 2008, when two off-duty soldiers had to be rescued after their car stuck in the middle of the River Wear on the first day it was due to open for the summer season.
Now the permanent closure – apart from special events such as rallies – has been confirmed. The recommendation to close the ford was made by a planning inspector following a public inquiry last month.
The inquiry heard that during the summer months (April to September) between 2001 and 2008 a vehicle needed rescuing, on average, once every four months – causing a risk to both the occupants and those called out to rescue them.
Evidence also showed that changes in the water levels can happen quickly and without warning at any time of year.
Coun Geraldine Bleasdale, chair of the Highways Committee, said: “We have considered the views put forward and the evidence regarding the safety of using the ford.
“We recognise that the ford is seen by many as an important tourist attraction but, having considered the evidence, we are in agreement with the inspector that the issue of public safety is a greater priority.
“And, like the inspector, we feel that the location’s appeal to visitors can only be enhanced by making it safer and more attractive by not having vehicles driving through.
“Therefore we have decided to endorse the recommendation from the public inquiry that the ford remain closed.”
But local councillors Anita Savoury and John Shuttleworth said they were “very disappointed” by the decision.
Coun Savoury said: “It is a very severe result. I would have hoped it could have remained open on a seasonal basis.”
And Coun Shuttleworth added: “A few driving through in unsuitable conditions have spoiled this for a lot of people.”
Following the decision by the Highways Committee, the formal decision to close the ford will be taken by Terry Collins, corporate director for neighbourhood services at Durham County Council.
It is a very severe result. I would have hoped it could have remained open on a seasonal basis