Independent Harrogate issues mission statement to revive town centre

As the economy gets set to reopen, one of Harrogate’s most vocal business pressure groups has issued its own comprehensive mission statement for reviving the town centre's economy.

Monday, 1st June 2020, 12:30 pm
Men with a mission - Harrogate Independents Ben Ogden, Nicholas Richardson, Robert Ogden and Robert Kennedy of the Independent Harrogate pressure group which has released a new 1,700-word mission statement on how to lift Harrogates retail industry out of the post-coronavirus doldrums. (Picture Gerard Binks)

Since its launch last summer, Independent Harrogate has attracted nearly 200 members from shops, bars and small businesses.

Criticised by some for focusing so much effort on waging a war for more free parking in the town centre, it has put together a document that seeks to look further and higher.

If the deepest fault line leading to heated debates within Harrogate’s political and business community is between those who want to stress the town’s strengths and those who want to address its weakness, Independent Harrogate’s mission statement is an attempt to straddle the two.

It may begin with a warning that “as Independent Harrogate has long warned, there is a crisis in Harrogate town centre,” but it quickly moves onto a long list of more positive suggestions to revive the retail sector.

Having identified footfall as the prime aim of any changes required it goes on to outline nine key ideas. The IH proposals run from investing in better public transport and making Harrogate an all-year-round major cultural magnet to learning from similar towns which it claims are currently doing things better, such as Stratford-Upon-Avon, Bath and Cheltenham.

Not that IH has mellowed in the nearly 12 months since it was formed.

It remains worried by the Harrogate District Local Plan which proposes far-reaching changes to Harrogate, including increased pedestrianisation, the reduction of car traffic and an increase in cycle access.

Last week’s moves by local authorities to create more space for pedestrians in Harrogate’s main shopping streets as lockdown begins to ease, set the alarm bells ringing.

An IH spokesperson said: “In the teeth of the Covid-19 crisis and during the national lockdown, North Yorkshire County Council is imposing widespread parking restrictions on the centre of Harrogate until September 30, apparently to aid ‘social distancing.

“Any Harrogate business that may have entertained hopes of a supportive shopping environment following the lockdown has just had those hopes dashed.”

The mission statement urges against what it says is “complacency.”

It says: “While the crisis hitting the high street is a national problem, Harrogate has always been regarded as more resilient than most towns.

“This is complacency. National retailers, particularly specialist ones such as H&M, Swarovksi, Jessops, Smallbone of Devizes, Early Learning Centre, Miss Selfridge and Cath Kidston have been leaving Harrogate in droves.

“In October 2019 Harrogate had the highest number of CVAs in the UK, along with the large cities of Reading, Birmingham and Nottingham (BBC.co.uk 5.10.20).”

As for solutions, Independent Harrogate’s lengthy document advocates:

Lower parking charges to incentivise people to choose Harrogate over its competitors: Altrincham’s prices start at just 20p for 30 minutes. The low cost of parking there has been cited as a key driver of Altrincham’s recent commercial renaissance;

Introduce an ongoing maintenance programme with regular deep-cleaning;

Make Harrogate an all-year-round major cultural magnet. Consider attracting a national icon to be developed in Harrogate;

Improve the local bus services - these should incorporate outlying villages into their routes. Introduce Park and Ride. Improve rail links.

Some of Independent Harrogate’s ideas such as deep clean of the town centre already feature in current plans by the local authorities.

Still, this hasn’t stopped IH having a swipe at them.

The mission statement contains serious reservations about the Harrogate District Local Plan which was adopted earlier this year just before lockdown for the pandemic.

It says: “We urge both Harrogate Borough Council and North Yorkshire County Council to stop playing poker with their precious asset, to listen to their business rate payers and to address the damaged fundamentals of Harrogate before proceeding with their long-term vision; and then do so in consultation with Independent Harrogate’s members and all businesses who trade there.”

If that suggests a permanent war of words, there may yet be a middle ground among the 1,700 words of IH’s mission statement.

“Independent Harrogate is broadly in favour of many of the town centre initiatives in the longer term. Who could not fail to be enthused by the images of al fresco dining, tree-lined streets and grand gateways?

“But we do so against the hard reality of running profitable businesses which are the lifeblood of the community where we all live and work.”

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