"Lessons must be learnt" from failed Crescent Gardens sale, councillors hear

An artist's impression of what the site would have looked like after development.
An artist's impression of what the site would have looked like after development.

Senior Harrogate councillor Pat Marsh has reiterated her calls for an inquiry into the failed sale of Crescent Gardens, saying "lessons must be learnt" from the collapsed deal involving the council's former headquarters.

The Liberal Democrat leader called for the action at the first meeting of council since the authority announced it would cancel the sale to developer ATP (Crescent Gardens) Ltd, after the company failed to meet the Friday deadline to submit a valid planning application.
“All that we’re trying to do is make sure public money was spent wisely, that this council was given the correct information in undertaking the decision in the first place (and) that due processes were undertaken by officers," Coun Marsh told councillors at the meeting.

"We really do need to make sure that what we did is right."

Her calls were rebuked by council leader Richard Cooper and deputy Graham Swift, who both asserted that the authority had done nothing wrong throughout the attempted sale.

“The reality is, as I think its been well recorded in the newspapers, that the party wishing to buy and enter a contractual agreement with Harrogate Borough Council has failed on an important and crucial deadline," Coun Swift said.

"I think there's no need to instigate an inquiry because in reality it's a failure not of Harrogate Borough Council, but the failure of the individual buying representatives who have not delivered their contractual agreements."

Coun Cooper accused the opposition of "mud-slinging" in looking for a scapegoat for the collapsed deal.
“It seems to me that there's a lot of flailing around to level some blame on councillors and council officers," he said, adding that he thought it was a "completely political" move.

“All an inquiry would reveal is that we had a contract and we abided by that contract."

Much of the debate came as councillors considered a report stating that £141,770.85 in costs had been accrued at Crescent Gardens since December 2017, with the majority of that being from business rates.

Liberal Democrats Matthew Webber and Philip Broadbank had triggered the report by asking for an urgent update on costs at the site last month, with the cabinet member responsible for the building, Coun Swift, privately briefing the pair on the situation since then.

Coun Swift said a non-refundable deposit paid by the would-be buyers “comfortably exceeds the costs that have been incurred and will for some time” - although Coun Webber replied he was "not sure that's completely true".

As he went on to state specific figures about the deposit, he was halted by cries of "woah" from around the chamber, with chief executive Wallace Sampson hurriedly stepping in to state that it was commercially sensitive given that the site was going back on the market.
It also got a sharp rebuke from Coun Swift, who said: "Fortunately the councillor's use of language and clumsy approach is equivalent to his use of maths".

Although not brought up during the meeting, the council had previously confirmed via email that a £150,000 non-refundable deposit was paid by the proposed developer in 2017.

In finishing debate on the topic, Coun Marsh again stated her support for an inquiry, saying "lessons must be learnt...so that the same issues don't come back and bite us".

However, Coun Swift closed by saying that the council was in a strong commercial position, given that it still had the asset and the deposit.

“We still have the asset, it's not gone anywhere. It's ours,” he said.

Lachlan Leeming, Local Democracy Reporter