What is behind turmoil at Harrogate BID and why resignations happened

Harrogate Business Improvement District has had a troubled first 18 months but what are the fault lines beneath the latest resignations? Graham Chalmers reports...

By Graham Chalmers
Monday, 11th May 2020, 6:02 pm
Flashback to the early days of Harrogate BID when the campaign for a 'Yes' vote in a ballot of local businesses proved successful.
Flashback to the early days of Harrogate BID when the campaign for a 'Yes' vote in a ballot of local businesses proved successful.

Harrogate BID isn’t the first in the UK to run into trouble and its difficult first 18 months do not necessarily mean it is going off the rails.

The history of Business Improvement Districts since they were first introduced in 2003 has been dotted with the occasional failure - controversy over who runs them and how they spend levy payers money is not uncommon.

But, beset with its own problems since being launched in 2018, Harrogate’s very own BID seems to have stumbled from one crisis to another.

Having lost its manager after only a few months last year - and its original chairman shortly after - the fact that four significant members of the board decided to quit suddenly less than a fortnight ago may, to some onlookers, seem like a disaster.

Harrogate BID Board itself, says its work is now carrying on as normal.

All four were connected to independent businesses. One, Robert Kennedy was the chairman, another, Chris Bentley is one of Harrogate’s biggest commercial property owners.

Four key figures who had only recently joined the board in a move to give Harrogate’s independent’s more of a voice, deciding they no longer wanted to be a part of the process.

Amid rumours of in-fighting among its members and suggestions that nobody could agree on which action best to take, it is understandable why the words crisis and disaster have often been associated with Harrogate’s BID.

However, interim manager Simon Kent, who was only appointed a few weeks ago, is keen to brush off such talk and is focused only on bringing out a new raft of initiatives designed to achieve what BID was set up for in the first place... to help Harrogate’s business community.

Mr Kent admitted the resignations had come as a surprise but said it did not deflect from BID’s ultimate goals.

“It was a complete surprise,” he admitted. “We were still talking to the four who resigned about items on the agenda for the next BID meeting the day before they quit.

“I look round the board table and there is still that passion for Harrogate and pride in the town as a special place, which is what it is all about.

“I know things at BID have taken a bit more time than people wanted but we are working on projects, investing significant amounts of money in readiness for easing coronvirus restrictions.”

Approximately 300 BIDs operate across Britain at the moment, funded by a levy of businesses which is ring-fenced for improvements additional and separate to the usual responsibilities of local councils. But with local authorities sometimes being the biggest levy payer to a BID’s budget, it is not unusual for councils to be represented on BID boards.

The arrival in January of the four new board members from the town’s burgeoning independent sector was meant to signal a fresh start for a body which had been set up by a vote of Harrogate businesses in 2018.

As early as January 2019 it was felt in some quarters that the BID board was too influenced by representatives of bigger national retail chains and local authorities, including Harrogate Borough Council, and too divorced from the streets it was set up to serve.

By the summer of 2019 many businesses were involved with their own pressure group, Independent Harrogate, especially in the retail sector most fearful for the future.

The arrival of coronavirus and the economic lockdown this year piled on the pressure and served to magnify existing fault lines in viewpoints among the leading players.

Rumours surfaced in recent months of meetings mired in heated, endless debate without agreement, of pressure on board members to present a united front at all times to the outside world.

What Harrogate BID's new acting chair says

It’s a picture new acting chair Sara Ferguson, co-owner of Sasso restaurant and its sister cafe Marconi in Harrogate - who also only arrived on the BID board this year - says is wide of the mark.

She said: “Harrogate Borough Council is only one voice on the board. We have always had open and honest discussions on the board but we weren’t coming up with any ideas for improving Harrogate that didn’t receive everyone’s approval.

“I’m an independent business owner, as is my fellow board member Sandra Doherty who runs a guest house.

“As for the idea of secrecy, I think that’s been misinterpreted. We did say as a new board this year we wanted to present a positive picture of Harrogate rather than dwelling in the negatives.

“We wanted to remain united for the good of the board and to get things done for the good of Harrogate.

“I am very aware of the challenges facing Harrogate businesses but everyone on the board has an equal voice.”

What one of the four who resigned from Harrogate BID's board says

One of the four board members to resign, Chris Bentley, said there was a simple reason why the quartet resigned.

“The BID can never give value for money,” he said. “The overhead approaching 40 percent of revenue is absurd and the projects it should deliver would best be done by the Council. It begs the question where does all the regular rate payers money go?

“In addition, the one individual on the BID board and the Council, Councillor Cooper, who has sat on the board for the past 8 months has failed to bring together the elements which should have allowed delivery of some of the BID goals.”

What Harrogate Borough Council leader (and Harrogate BID board member) says

Council leader Coun Richard Cooper, says the whole thing has become a distraction from what really matters.

He said: “The idea of undue council influence on the BID is ridiculous. The Borough Council has one vote on a board of 15 people; the County Council a second. Two people cannot outvote 13.

“When the BID adopted its latest action plan in February all 15 members, including those who have since resigned, voted to approve it

“This is a distraction. It’s time now to spend some of the levy payers cash - including the council taxpayers’ large contribution - to make sure Harrogate comes roaring out of the traps when lockdown ends.”

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