How UCIs controversy threatens harmony between business and Harrogate council

The UCI cycling championships may be history but its impact is still sowing division in Harrogate, especially in the business sector.

Thursday, 31st October 2019, 11:16 am
The anticipated number of visitors failed to materialise in Harrogate during the UCI cycling championships, as this picture taken of sparsely spread out shoppers on James Street during the event's final Saturday shows.

It’s not often in Harrogate that business and the council find themselves almost at loggerheads.

Harmony at the highest levels of governance in the town is normally the order of the day.

But the impact of the recent UCI cycling championships is threatening to crack that wide open.

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As the debate over whether the nine days of this international sporting event helped or harmed the town shows no sign of abating, the frustrations of Harrogate and District Chamber of Commerce, always an organisation keen to take a positive approach, have boiled over.

Plea to Government over appalling condition of Stray in HarrogateIn the build-up, the chamber had supported the rain-battered cycling extravaganza as a way of offering a possible boost to local traders and the town as a whole.

It still believes the story of the UCI Road World Championships is not one that is entirely negative, especially in its international marketing value to the town.

The sight of the water-logged and mud-ravaged Stray may have been the final straw for some people.

But, in the case of some of the members of the Chamber of Commerce, it’s the approach of Harrogate Borough Council to the UCI’s negative economic effect on a large proportion of town centre businesses which has produced an unprecedented strength of feeling among some members.

In particular, the council’s response to a barrage of complaints at a stormy meeting the chamber held at Hotel du Vin in Harrogate on October 2 which attracted 150 people from local businesses appears to have been a tipping point.

Questions of compensation, threats of suing for losses and a plea for free parking for town centre shoppers in the festive period were thrown up.

Harrogate businesses to get lower rates and rents is the new hopeReflecting the feedback from the meeting, all the above concerns ended up in a lengthy letter from the chamber to the council sent on October 6.

It’s the council’s equally lengthy reply to the letter which has so annoyed the president of Harrogate and District Chamber of Commerce, Steve Scarre, in particular.

Speaking in a personal capacity to the Harrogate Advertiser, Mr Scarre said he had been “astounded” by the council letter sent in reply to the chamber.

Mr Scarre said: “I have studied the council’s response and I must say I am absolutely astounded by it. They don’t seem to realise the anger most retailers in the town have against the council right now.

“The council doesn’t seem to realise that our town is turning into a place where retailers think that Harrogate Borough Council just doesn’t care about helping local businesses.”

Such unusual condemnation has been met with a robust defence by Harrogate Borough Council.

Council leader Coun Richard Cooper said the criticism had taken him by surprise and said the council was not the driver of the UCIs.

Talking to the Harrogate Advertiser he pointed to what he said were straightforward facts: Yorkshire 2019 organised the UCIs, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport brought the event to Britain and tourism group Welcome to Yorkshire brought the event to Yorkshire and to Harrogate.

Mr Scarre said members of the chamber were disappointed at what they felt was a lack of council support to make up for the tough times many experienced during the UCIs.

There had been no action on the high cost of rates and rents for businesses.

And the news that the free parking idea was simply not a possibility had dismayed them. He said: “I suggested free parking in December, which the council has refused without even a discussion, and now North Yorkshire County Council are talking about putting up parking charges; an absolutely bizarre decision given the above request.

“A simple gesture to give some free parking in December would have gone a long way to help turn the tide of discontent.”

But Coun Cooper said its powers in some areas were strictly limited.

He said: “The Borough Council is not responsible for on-street parking charges, road closures, or organising the UCI cycling event.

“It collects business rates on behalf of the Government but it does not set them nor retain them.

“Continually saying that parking charges are high when they are not and saying there is no free parking near the town centre when there is, simply deters people from coming to Harrogate.”

Coun Cooper said there were many practical ways in which Harrogate Borough Council was already supporting the local economy.

Under pressure before the UCIs even began, the council commissioned finance giants Ernst and Young to assess the economic impact of the event on Harrogate once it was over.

In its October 6 letter, the Chamber of Commerce asked the council to be given a role in the completion of the report.

So far, the council will only say the results of the probe will be made public once completed.

The chamber says its some of its members feel neglected by local authorities in general.

Mr Scarre said: “It seems to me that both Councils are content to let Harrogate independent businesses suffer and the large chains move away.

“Neither Harrogate Borough Council nor North Yorkshire County Council seem to recognise the difficulties retailers are having.”

But Coun Richard Cooper insists the council is happy to work with anyone for the business good of the town - even when it comes to the crucial areas of rates and rents.

And, he adds, the town is in danger of talking itself into trouble.

He said: “Let’s not pretend everything is perfect but let’s not present a scenario to those people who we want to visit our town and to spend in our shops that it isn’t worth coming.

“I am proud of our town, I continually want to make it better and I am positive about its future.”