Why is there anxiety about high street in Harrogate and how town can still prosper in bad times

Harrogate may be better-placed than most to overcome the cost of living crisis but the town’s business leaders were clearly worried enough to issue a new plea for urgent support from the Government this week.

By Graham Chalmers
Thursday, 16th June 2022, 5:22 pm
Updated Thursday, 16th June 2022, 5:35 pm

Despite this week's Government announcement that eight million people would be receiving their first cost-of-living payment in July, Harrogate District Chamber of Trade is echoing its national body in saying the scale of the looming economic crisis is not so far being reflected at a policy level.

Inflation is almost in double figures, and the cost of living is soaring, making people tighten their belts,” said David Simister, chief executive of Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce.

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Despite Harrogate's advantages in its high street compared to other towns, worry persists over the national economic trends.

"There is still fragility in the high street economy and there is certainly a nervousness that we are heading for a recession.”

It's not only rising inflation, rising interest rates and rising energy bills which are serving to sound alarm bells even in Harrogate's business world.

There's the matter of the British economy moving from growth to decline. The Government's GDP figures showed a 0.3% contraction for April 2022.

And the sheer scale of the nation's recruitment crisis - caused by a combination of changed lifestyles after Covid, the loss of EU staff thanks to Brexit and the desertion of hundreds of thousands of older British workers - is a phenomenon even Harrogate can't ignore.

The latest official figures earlier this week revealed vacancies reached a new record high of 1.3 million between February to April 2022 - more than half a million more than prior to the pandemic.

All in all, the signs of an economic storm are focussing the minds of even the least partisan organisations in the economy.

This week saw the British Chambers of Commerce conclude that much more needed to be done - and done quickly.

Among the measures it would like to see adopted by Chancellor Rishi Sunak are:

A reduction in VAT to 5% on businesses’ energy bills

An Emergency Budget to stimulate the economy

More flexible working practices, rapid re-training opportunities

If anything, leaders at the Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce and Harrogate Business Improvement District (BID) want the Government to go even further.

While confident Harrogate retains its attraction for investors and businesses, they remain nervous about the town’s prospects in an era of record staff shortages, high inflation, stagnating wages and high energy costs.

Mr Simister said: “While I agree with some of what the British Chambers of Commerce is calling for, I think we can go further, including slashing duty and VAT on petrol and diesel and lowering corporation tax.

“As the Chamber has said before, we desperately need a re-evaluation of the business rates systems well.”

That view is one shared by Harrogate BID manager Matthew Chapman.

Despite his belief in a positive future, he said there was no room for complacency - not even in Harrogate.

“One thing that is missing from the British Chamber of Commerce’s list is the long overdue review of Business Rates,” said Mr Chapman.

“The Chancellor gave businesses an early Christmas present last year by reducing them by 50% for 12 months, the last thing they can afford is for them to go back up again.

“The Chancellor made some very bold decision during the Covid pandemic, and he needs to do similar now to help ease the ‘cost of living

crisis’ facing all of us."

But Harrogate BID also points to good reasons why Harrogate should fare better than most - even if a recession if possibly around the corner.

Harrogate BID manager Matthew Chapman said: “The good news is investment continues in the town centre and new business are moving in.

“Staffing in the retail and hospitality sectors is still posing an issue, but Harrogate College is addressing this and working with business to deliver tailor-made training courses," he continued.

“The economic forecast is a concern for all towns and cities, but Harrogate is better- placed than many and continued collaboration, and investment in our infrastructure, will also help us weather any potential economic storm.”

“We want Harrogate to be known as the friendliest town in the country, one that delivers the ‘Disney effect’, which in turn will see visitors returning time and time again."

Closures and openings: How is James Street in Harrogate faring?

Even James Street, perhaps Harrogate’s most prestigious name in retail, has seen empty units in recent years.

But the signs are that this is far from a one-sided battle as businesses departing are being replaced by new ones moving in.

The latest arrival is Oliver Bonas, the independent British lifestyle brand, which has confirmed that it will be opening a new store on James Street in September.

The much-loved fashion and lifestyle retailer has agreed a lease for the ground floor area at the site of around 3,700 square ft from owners of the building.

Meanwhile, Countrylarge is also preparing proposals to convert the upper floors of the building into a number of boutique serviced apartments.

And Pret A Manger recently opened up on James Street at the spot left by Messums gallery.

Tom Limbert, director of niche property consultants Central Retail, who acted for Countrylarge, said: “Over the past 12 months, we have introduced Pret A Manger, Ebru Evrim and Carl Scarpa to James Street and have upsized Hotel Chocolat.”