Harrogate: Here's what to do with Crescent Gardens

"Harrogate deserves better" - Leading Harrogate historian Malcolm Neesam.
"Harrogate deserves better" - Leading Harrogate historian Malcolm Neesam.

The recent collapse of £75 million plans to redevelop Harrogate’s historic Crescent Gardens has led to many questions.

Could Harrogate Borough Council, which gave the contract to ATP (Crescent Gardens) Ltd in 2017 before terminating it earlier this month, have done better?

Should the company itself, owned by Harrogate developer Adam Thorpe, have been more realistic in its lavish ambitions for luxury apartments at the former council headquarters?

The fallout of the deal’s collapse after the council concluded that the developer had failed to submit a valid planning application before its deadline of April 5 has seen opposition Liberal Democrat councillors demanding an inquiry into exactly what happened.

But according to one man who knows the history of Crescent Gardens best, the situation is nothing new for an area which has seen plans come and go many times in the past.

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Leading historian Malcolm Neesam says, as a public site, its future has been regularly re-assessed and contested since it began life as a humble inn in the late 17th century.

It’s not simply about the building itself.

Situated in the shadow of the Valley Gardens, the Royal Hall and the Royal Baths, the whole site was regarded as a prime civic location from the early 19th century onwards and has always felt the push and pull of private interests versus public.

Malcolm Neesam said: “Recent events have yet again thwarted plans to provide Crescent Gardens with a new feature.

“That this is nothing new, but only the latest chapter in a centuries old sequence of failed plans, may come as something of a surprise.”

There are now growing demands for the focus of what has been a commercial proposition for Harrogate council up to now to be more strongly on the public use of Crescent Gardens for the benefit of the town and its visitor economy as a whole.

Harrogate Civic Society chairman Henry Pankhurst has already called for the Crescent Gardens area to be used at least in part for uses that are for the community of Harrogate.

But a former senior Harrogate Borough Council officer has gone one step further and come up with his own vision of what he suggests should be called 'The Square’.

David Turner Rhodes, who was the council’s head of conservation and design from 1990 to 2005, said the time has come for the council to review its Town Centre Strategy and Master Plan and draw up a new brief for the site with a coordinated plan for the historic setting of the Royal Hall, Baths, Museum, Mercer Gallery, Crescent Gardens and the Old Council Offices.

In Mr Rhodes’ view, a true civic and commercial partnership is required to bring a brighter future for Crescent Gardens.

This would involve building three new apartment blocks which could provide Harrogate Borough Council with a capital return and on-going revenue.

As a result of the latter, it would become financially feasible to concentrate on the area’s civic role.

Mr Rhodes’ designs would also include:

A new ‘Community Hall’ for exhibitions, events, displays, meetings and as appropriate Civic functions

A new glazed gallery for the Mercer Gallery and a small enclosed sculpture garden.

A new ‘Civic Square’ of wall to wall traffic calming and human enhancement from the war memorial down Parliament Street to the Majestic and across from the Royal Hall and Royal Baths to the Royal Pump Room Museum, Valley Gardens entrance and Mercer Gallery.

Now that Crescent Gardens is back on the market, the council - and the town - is back to the position it stood in in 2014 when it was first announced the building was going on sale.

As then, the council must still think of the financial consequences.

But Mr Neesam says the town now needs to do what it has failed to do so many times before - come up with a plan which ticks all the boxes.

He said: “There has never been a better opportunity than now for Crescent Gardens to be enhanced in a manner that would fulfil the recommendations of decades of expert but ignored advice that Harrogate needs an all-weather visitor attraction and also additional income generation from residential and/or commercial use.

“Unfortunately, the vision, sense of history and business acumen needed to drive this forward seems to me to be totally lacking so far.

“Now is not a time for thinking small. Harrogate deserves better, and not more of the same that has produced the present impasse.”

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